Tied by blood and destiny

Julie Lipper is a former reporter for the New York Observer.

"Sons of Fortune," the first in a series of books Jeffrey Archer will publish while serving a prison sentence for perjury, is a testament to the author's passion for his craft and his ability to churn out a story under harsh circumstances. It is a fast read with a plot that fulfills readers' fantasies of friendship and rivalry. The novel is accessible but might disappoint those who are looking for characters with human depth or are interested in life's more uncontrolled elements.

As in his previous book, "Kane & Abel," a blockbuster plot governs "Sons of Fortune." One day, Dr. Greenwood, a respected obstetrician at St. Patrick's hospital in Hartford, Conn., delivers three babies within minutes of each other. Two of the infants are fraternal twins, Peter and Nat Cartwright, sons of Susan and Michael Cartwright. The third child, Andrew Fletcher Davenport, is born to Ruth and Robert Davenport.

When Miss Heather Nichol, a senior nurse on the maternity wing of St. Patrick's, finds Andrew Davenport dead in his hospital crib, she decides to switch him with Peter Cartwright, who had been sharing the neighboring crib with Nat. The next morning, Dr. Greenwood declares Peter to be dead. Peter Cartwright thus becomes Andrew Davenport (called Fletcher), and grows up with Ruth and Robert never knowing his true identity, while Nat grows up with his real parents under the impression that his twin brother died.

Frequently visible behind his characters, Archer resembles a puppeteer. He speaks through Fletcher's mother, for instance, who "kept telling him [Fletcher] to put his knife and fork down while he was eating," and who declares that "[k]nives and forks are not airplanes and shouldn't remain in midair longer than necessary." Through third-person narration and glib dialogue, Archer hovers over his characters, never letting them think or move on their own for even a single bite.

Moreover, he is like a parent who cannot let his child develop because he is so eager for it to fulfill a destiny he envisions for it. Before his twins are even born, Michael declares that his sons will take after their parents: "One can be a Republican, and the other a Democrat." The climax of the drama hinges on this very dream that Archer makes sure is realized.

As they grow up, Archer presents Nat and Fletcher as a PR advisor would, spending more time on their resumes than on the people underneath the cliches. This is exemplified in a conversation Nat has with Logan, a lawyer whom he has hired to represent him against his lifelong enemy, Ralph Elliot: Logan says, "... you're going to get involved in a fairly aggressive media campaign; in other words, let it all hang out." Nat asks, "What do you have in mind," to which Logan responds, "Local boy made good, Vietnam hero, Harvard scholar who returned to Hartford to build up the bank with his closest friend. Even throw in your cross-country experience...." Archer treats Fletcher in a similarly superficial manner.

In a debate for the Democratic seat in the Connecticut Senate, Fletcher says, "I was born in Farmington.... Yes, I did go to Hotchkiss.... Yes, I did go to Yale.... Yes, I did become president of the college council, and yes, I was editor of the Law Review, which is why I was invited to join one of the most prestigious legal firms in New York." Archer seems to value what's on paper more than the emotional or intellectual composition of the personalities involved.

Nat and Fletcher's different careers, social circles and political opinions, as well as Elliot's schemes intended to destroy them, keep the brothers apart in an attempt to heighten tension before the climax of their meeting. Archer gets so bogged down in the details of these events, however, that the lives of our heroes start to look like a desperate shopping list of moments that will serve as a recipe for an ultimately bland resolution.

Archer finally brings Nat and Fletcher together as they run against each other in the election for Hartford's gubernatorial seat, Nat on the Republican ticket, Fletcher on the Democratic one. In addition, Fletcher defends Nat against an accusation of murder in a trial that runs simultaneously with the election. This situation appears farfetched, but because Archer presents so many coincidences right at the beginning of the novel, readers are desensitized to the unlikelihood of his logic or have simply decided to suspend judgment by the end.

Archer masterfully creates a great villain in Elliot, who jumps off the pages in all of his vengeful and shady glamour. When Nat loses Taft's student body presidential seat to Elliot, he "rose from his place, walked across to Elliot and offered his outstretched hand," only to be ignored by the victor. Such hostile gestures quickly become intolerable and Elliot becomes as much our enemy as that of Nat and Fletcher. We turn pages for the satisfaction of his fall and the consequent reunion of our heroes.

Even though "Sons of Fortune" does not live up to the originality and elegance of his short story collection, "To Cut a Long Story Short," Archer provides a fine read with a keen sense of the good and the bad in people and the importance of kinship.

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