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A pair of well-known novelists return to the fray, with mixed results:
The Interruption of Everything, by Terry McMillan, read by Desiree Taylor. Unabridged, 12 hours. Penguin Audio, $39.95.
McMillan made her first big splash with Waiting to Exhale, a story about four young black professional women and the no-good men in their lives, and cemented her place on the scene with How Stella Got Her Groove Back, about a fortysomething female executive who finds sex -- and, eventually, love -- with a handsome young stud she meets on a Jamaican vacation.
Now, as her real-life marriage to the man who inspired Stella breaks up amid well-publicized recriminations, McMillan is back with The Interruption of Everything, a solid story about an upper-middle- class wife and mother who's learning as she enters menopause that she needs to reinvent her life.
Certainly Marilyn Grimes isn't happy. Not with her dreary husband, Leon, always "working late;" her too-devout mother-in-law sitting in judgment daily in Marilyn's own living room; Marilyn's mother showing signs of Alzheimer's disease; her foster sister in trouble for abusing drugs; her twin sons off at college; and her grown daughter busy with her own life. Marilyn's work at a craft shop doesn't fulfill her, either -- not when she really wants to be an artist.
Then things begin to change. Marilyn learns in quick succession that she's pregnant and that her ex-husband, the gorgeous Gordon, is back in town. Leon heads off to Costa Rica to find himself, and his mother takes up with a fellow from the local senior-citizens high- rise. And even more surprises are on their way.
With a fine reading from Taylor, who's got each character down and different, Marilyn feels real, and so does the rest of the crew. They've got plenty of troubles, but they've also got surprising gumption and depth. There's both you-go-girl humor and eye-filling emotion.
Other than an ending that doesn't quite hit a believable tone, you get the feeling that McMillan -- at least on a literary level -- still has her groove going strong.
Rococo, by Adriana Trigiani, read by Mario Cantone, with an interview with Trigiani. Abridged, 5 hours. Random House Audio, $27.50.
Trigiani burst onto the literary scene in 2000 with Big Stone Gap, a novel about a shy pharmacist in a Virginia mountain town that drew from Trigiani's own life growing up for its inspired characters, plot and setting.
And ever since, she's been busy, busy, busy - two sequels to Big Stone Gap, with another on the way, plus a pair of other novels before this one, a cookbook, and work on a pair of movies growing from her novels. Throw in her husband and young daughter, she jokes in the interview that ends this book, and she has so much on her plate, she has to deal with it using a spatula.
Maybe that's why this tale of a 40-year-old unmarried male decorator who is far more interested in redecorating his parish church than in getting romantically involved with either women or men seems so surfacey and, well, uninvolving.
Bartolomeo di Crespi -- "B" to friends and family -- is a moderately successful New Jersey decorator with a singular ambition: to be the one chosen to redo Our Lady of Fatima Church. It's an old Gothic building that needs opening up and lightening up. And B seems to need some renovation of his own in the romance department: His longtime semi-engagement to Capri Mandelbaum, mousy daughter of the richest woman in New Jersey, just isn't doing much for either of them.
You might think that B is the stereotype of a closeted gay decorator, especially when the book is read by Cantone, a gay actor best known as Anthony, Charlotte's gay wedding planner-turned- friend on Sex and the City. (Cantone, who has acted on Broadway in the drama Love! Valour! Compassion! and was nominated for a Tony this year for his one-man show Laugh Whore, does a fine job here, managing to create distinctive voices and personas for B's sexually frustrated sister, Toot; her philandering ex-husband, Lonnie; the parish priest; and assorted nephews, family friends and decorating- world types.)
But B isn't gay; his love life is going nowhere at all, which is about as interesting as it sounds. His travels through the world of art and design, too, seem more researched than they are felt. And the other characters are more types than living, breathing human beings. The plot complications they run into feel more like the author's convenient inventions than the twists of life found in Trigiani's first, best work.
Even the author interview at the end of the book fails to get very far beneath the surface. There's nothing in it more penetrating about Trigiani's writing process than her repeated insistence that her characters are interesting and that she loved spending time with them.
Well, that makes one of us.
Alan Rosenberg is The Journal's assistant features editor. E- mail him at email@example.com.
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