BEST INTENTIONS By Kate Lehrer Little, Brown. 216 pp. $15.95
Don't mistake "Best Intentions" for an insider's look at the glamorous Washington party circuit. That aspect is here, of course, because that's the milieu in which the characters move. It is used not as golly-gee-wow backdrop, however, but as one of the novel's essential ironies.
For Sarah Corbin Adams -- a political commentator who can bring the mighty low -- is the woman with everything, as bright and as necessary as the sun. Those who aren't caught in her orbit, though, are the ones she cares for most -- her 17-year-old daughter Leslie most of all. Prime ministers may call and cabinet officials may dance attendance, but no matter; Sarah, "an established eminence, not only in Washington, but in the country," is also the woman with nothing.
We don't know it from the start, in part because we see Sarah through the adoring eyes of her assistant, Courtney Patterson. "I do not claim objectivity," Courtney admits early on, still Sarah's friend even when she clearly sees the sundry ways that Sarah's needs can suck a person dry. "I knew she ... preferred company. Not just preferred, but needed company. At first, I'd been flattered to be included by her in so many late-night vigils of one kind or another until I realized that just about anybody would do when it got late enough. She liked warm bodies around. If they were interesting and fun, so much the better, but when the crunch came she would settle for anyone without bad breath. For duller companions, she would simply provide entertainment herself. She was as fond of audiences as she was of companionship."
Courtney's attitude helps us formulate the excuse: Well, okay. Sarah's a celebrity. She's under a lot of pressure. She leads -- despite the surface glitter -- quite a difficult life.
And, along with Courtney, we sympathize with Sarah in the battles she and her daughter have. Haven't we had similar fights with our own kids? Are those described here excessive? Maybe. But after all, aren't celebrities supposed to be larger than life? And so -- because Courtney does it and, after all, we like Courtney -- we make apologies for behavior we ought to view with alarm. We believe, in short, the title of this book.
But "Best Intentions" is also a novel of suspense. It begins the way something by Daphne Du Maurier might have begun. "Over and over again," comes Courtney's voice, "I tell myself the story of Sarah ..."
And in the third paragraph comes the lure: "Until Leslie died ..." When the plot becomes as riveting as a suspense plot is meant to be, it is never only that. We are never reading for the solution and, indeed, we fear it. A book that can do this, I think, is one whose characters have come to mean an awful lot to us.
Leslie's death is at the heart of the novel. We realize, as Courtney realizes, that the girl was doomed. Our shame is that we ought to have seen it. We ought to have heeded the warning Sarah herself sounded: "People shouldn't need to count for so much. It's a mistake."
After Leslie's death, Sarah goes to an auction at Leslie's school because the auction is on her schedule. "Leslie would like this," Sarah says, bidding on an antique silver barrette. At the event, those who would once have swarmed around her back away.
And the network's response? "Gone for a month? Isn't that excessive? We don't have any shows in the can."
While we feel pity, we also understand when Sarah's ex-husband Philip admits, "Hell, do you think I enjoyed leaving them? Sarah knew how to produce guilt instantaneously. The only courageous thing I've done was to leave her. And that was to save myself."
But this is also Courtney's story. Let's just say that Courtney is to "Best Intentions" what Ishmael is to "Moby Dick." She survives to tell a moving and intriguing tale. The reviewer's most recent suspense novel, "Patchwork," has just been released in paperback.