'Chick book' flies

Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

People of my gender call novels such as Jo-Ann Mapson's "chick books" because they focus on love, family and relationships rather than on, say, weapons of mass destruction. We tend to dismiss them as soap operas with covers -- as if the plot of the typical guy book (FBI profiler plays cat-and-mouse games with serial killer) dealt with a wider and deeper range of human experience.

Of course, the opposite is true. Few of us are profilers or killers, but all of us seek love, and most of us have issues with our parents, siblings, children and ex-lovers. Thus, even in a terror-haunted time, Mapson is a surer guide than Tom Clancy to contemporary American life, though the charge that she writes soap operas -- classy ones, to be sure -- can be made to stick.

"Along Came Mary" is the second novel in Mapson's trilogy about hard-used women who huddle for refuge and community on a 40-acre flower farm on California's Central Coast. They bring their animals with them and an impressive list of talents. These self-described "bad girls," we soon feel, deserve better.

Many of their problems seemed solved by the end of the first novel, "Bad Girl Creek." Phoebe, the disabled owner of the farm, found love with Juan, a UPS driver. Nance, fleeing a relationship with a journalist, found love with Phoebe's brother, James. Beryl, who had served prison time for her abusive husband's death, found love with Earl, a bookstore owner and musician. And Ness, a 6-foot African American blacksmith, found friendship with a man who, like her, had the AIDS virus.

In soap operas, however, calamity abhors a vacuum. "Along Came Mary" barely opens when Juan is killed in a car crash on his wedding day. Phoebe is pregnant. Having the baby despite her medical problems requires that she ruthlessly stifle her grief. Ness' story is put on hold, no doubt to resume in the third novel. Beryl feels a vague disquiet -- she loves Earl, but he has mysterious sources of money and keeps going off to play guitar gigs. Nance -- pining for "Rotten Rick," the journalist? -- develops anorexia as her wedding to James approaches.

Meanwhile, Mapson introduces a new character, the Mary of the title, a gifted singer in a dead-end relationship with a has-been pop star. She breaks free, but into an emotional void; her twin sister was killed in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, and her mother can't forgive Mary for surviving.

Mapson offers us two outrageous coincidences. Mary, attending a memorial service for the bombing victims, meets a reporter who is none other than Rotten Rick and takes up with him. Later, in Santa Fe, they go to a bar where none other than Earl is playing his guitar. Beryl is there too, and she and Mary (clearly bad girl material) bond at once. Sooner or later, we figure, Rick and Mary will end up at the farm with Nance and James, and the fur will fly. First, though, Mary has to battle her alcoholism, and Rick, not so rotten when we get to know him, has to find a way to grow up at age 50.

"Along Came Mary" takes its time -- which is good. Coincidences seem less jarring when Mapson surrounds them with details of everyday living and lets her characters' complexities unfold. She is fortunate in hot-tempered Mary and self-consciously ironical Rick: Whenever each narrates the story, it has extra zing and humor, and enough heart to make fans feel that yet another "bad girl" novel won't be one too many.

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