Mysteries of motherhood, murder

Special to The Times

The appeal of Beth Brophy's first novel lies in both the ordinariness and moxie of its protagonist, a harried working mother whose dogged curiosity turns her, unwittingly, into an expert detective. "My Ex-Best Friend" is a mystery, but it's also an astute portrait of suburban living, women's friendships and the demands faced by working mothers.

Claire Newman is a successful journalist for a fictional magazine called Nationweek. A typically harried day involves sitting at her desk, "phone cradled under one ear while I type at the computer, writing one story for business, editing an education piece for the social trends section, rearranging the boys' nursery-school car pool, and calling friends to guilt them into providing homes for a litter of eight gerbils."

How does a woman negotiate her way through this barrage of stress? In Claire's case, not very well. "I juggle lots of balls," she says, "but I don't want to drop any of them." Despite the passive-aggressive guilt trips laid on her by neighborhood housewives, Claire loves her job and is proud of her success. Yet she also enjoys "the mundane domestic chores of motherhood -- packing lunches, shampooing hair, reading bedtime stories." It's nice to encounter a charmingly flawed character who could do with a makeover, a yoga class and a night out alone with her husband, if only she had the time.

Claire's domestic travails take a backseat to the novel's central story, which concerns her longtime best friend, Lydia Finelli, from whom she has been estranged for five years -- a break that was not her choice. In fact, to the point of annoying her loving husband, Aaron, Claire has never stopped obsessing over why Lydia abruptly dropped her. Claire's recollections of their years of friendship, and the bitterness of its ending, poignantly reveal the extent to which women rely on each other for nurturing and support.

Although Claire has made recent overtures to Lydia, Lydia has refused her at every turn. But one day Claire runs into her at a local bakery, and Lydia says she wants to see her again and that she needs her help. Against her better judgment, Claire agrees, if for no other reason than to take advantage of "one of life's rare opportunities to tie up a loose end." The mystery begins when Claire shows up at her friend's house a few days later, only to discover Lydia's dead body, an apparent suicide. The devastation is overwhelming: Now she will never find out why Lydia dumped her, and they will never have the chance to be friends again. Because she is unable to let go of Lydia -- and thanks to her journalistic snooping habit -- Claire starts to delve deeper into the cause of death. Although the autopsy results seem clear -- Lydia died by ingesting foods that interacted fatally with her antidepressant medication -- Claire remains unconvinced that her friend took her own life.

Brophy offers up a variety of suspects, including Lydia's handsome neurologist husband, Matthew; his close friend, a medical researcher named Jill; a psychiatrist neighbor; and a local soccer coach. The ultimate revelation of the murderer's identity comes as no huge surprise, but Brophy's competent prose, and the authenticity with which she portrays her characters' relationships, make the novel enjoyable nonetheless.

That said, the last chapter of "My Ex-Best Friend" is somewhat disappointing. The wrap-up to the murder mystery is sloppy and unconvincing, and the melodrama is accompanied by embarrassingly cliched lines, right out of a bad movie: "It turns out that the people we think we know best may sometimes be the biggest strangers." (Yes, really.) And, "The scariest part is that sometimes we don't recognize evil when it's staring directly at us." If the entire novel had been written in such hackneyed language, it would be easy to dismiss, but that isn't the case.

Brophy does maintain a bit of surprise at the end, though. Her protagonist doesn't stride into the sunset having mastered the art of marriage, career and motherhood. If anything, Claire has made things worse.

Just as she has saved the day as an ingenious detective, she is forced to do damage control in her marriage. While doggedly investigating Lydia's murder, she puts herself in danger and realizes too late that she has alienated her husband along the way. The ambiguity that Brophy brings to the resolution of the couple's marital troubles salvages an otherwise drippy conclusion.

So what if "My Ex-Best Friend" isn't a brilliant suspense novel? Few mysteries offer such a likable, self-effacing protagonist -- one who doesn't quite have it all, but who hasn't given up trying -- or such insight into the extraordinary bonds of female friendship.

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