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ROMANCE ROUNDUP

Book Review: The Wedding Girl by Madeleine Wickham, aka Sophie Kinsella

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By Kristi Lanier
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Writing under her given name Madeleine Wickham, mega-author Sophie Kinsella ("Confessions of a Shopaholic") delivers a tale of roadblocks on the way to happily ever after with "The Wedding Girl" (Thomas Dunne, $24.95). Heroine Milly is days away from a fairy-tale marriage wedding when a long-buried complication resurfaces. Turns out, sweet-natured Milly married a gay American friend 10 years earlier so he could stay in Britain with his partner. But she never got divorced and never told anyone -- least of all her earnest fiance, Simon. All this might have remained buried, but a witness to Milly's long-ago marriage shows up and scares her into a reckoning with her past and future.

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But Milly's dilemma is really only scaffolding for a three-ring circus of subplots. When Milly scurries off to find her first husband, she flushes out his lover, who's now a fundamentalist Christian and married, to a woman. Meanwhile, her sister is pregnant by a mystery boyfriend; her parents' relationship is quietly crumbling; and even Simon has debilitating daddy issues. Then there's meek and mild Milly herself, who feels Simon's perception of her is based on a fiction she created and -- like her first marriage -- never got around to correcting. With so many story lines, a less agile writer would have ended up in a tangled heap, but Wickham gets out with just a few bruises. This is a romantic comedy packed with goofy details, winsome characters and titillating twists.

Elin Hilderbrand's cast nearly chokes on dysfunction in "The Castaways" (Little, Brown, $24.99). The story revolves around a tight-knit group of four couples. But Hilderbrand kills off Tess and Greg MacAvoy in the book's opening pages and then uses their somewhat mysterious death as a clothesline on which to hang everyone's dirty laundry. The book alternates among the remaining six and between past and present. Among their shared dramas, music teacher Greg is accused of philandering with a beautiful student. His estranged wife, Tess, seeks solace in the arms of Addison Wheeler, whose wife has retreated into a prescription drug haze after her own tragedy. Disillusioned with her husband, Delilah Drake falls for carefree Greg. And when Tess and Greg die, more than one character has a psychotic episode.

Despite all the melodrama, "The Castaways" is a sensitive portrayal of the complexities of friendship. Hilderbrand's characters illustrate the alliances, insecurities and joys that color adult relationships. But it's also a cautionary tale about hanging out with the same people all the time. This group excels at narcissism, bickering and drinking themselves silly. Still, when it's done well, as it is here, reading about other people's problems is ever so satisfying.

Alex Wellen sets a young love story in a small-town pharmacy, peoples it with feisty senior citizens, adds an illegal drug ring and makes the whole kooky premise work in "Lovesick" (Three Rivers, Paperback, $14). Pharmacy technician Andy is in love with his gruff boss's daughter Paige. He intends to propose but fears her father won't approve. Soon after he does pop the question, his boss drops dead. But that reveals a bigger problem: It turns out Day's Pharmacy has been subsidizing underinsured customers with the help of a ring of retirees who smuggle free drug samples. That well-intentioned charity left Paige's father deep in debt, facing discovery by an insurance investigator and with dozens hooked on the "Day Co-Pay." Andy and Paige have to come up with thousands of dollars and still make it to the altar. Wellen turns this potentially dreary subject into a delightful romantic comedy with unexpected humor and a wacky cast of supporting characters.

Sarah Strohmeyer's "The Penny Pinchers Club" (Dutton, $25.95) offers a playful look at that No. 1 relationship killer: money. Kat Griffiths is a spender; her economics professor husband, Griff, is not. But they're madly in love and have made it work for 20 years. Until Kat finds condoms in Griff's pockets and damning e-mail correspondence with his pretty research assistant. All signs indicate Griff is leaving her. To save her future -- and maybe just her present, too -- Kat has to change her ways. She joins up with the Rocky River Penny Pinchers Club, a frugal-living support group filled with eccentrics who teach her to shop in bulk, get wicked deals on tampons and face her financial demons. But it's not just the credit cards that haunt Kat. An old love reappears who offers adoration and total financial freedom. Bills are a buzz kill, but Strohmeyer deals handily with this subject, injecting a very real problem with humor and charm. She even leaves the reader with a few practical tips on cutting expenses -- the perfect recession escape.

Lanier is a freelance writer in Seattle.


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