AIN'T NOBODY'S BUSINESS IF I DO

By Valerie Wilson Wesley

Avon. 323 pp. $24

For Eva Hutchinson, Friday the 13th brings bad luck right on time. A week after their 10th wedding anniversary, her husband, Hutch, announces he's leaving her. He doesn't know where he's going and can't pin down exactly why he's going, but he tells her, "There's no joy between us." Whether they'll again find joy--and their way back to each other--forms the heart of Valerie Wilson Wesley's latest novel, "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do."

The author, editor at large at Essence magazine, has earned her reputation as a novelist with a series of mysteries featuring Tamara Hayle, a single mother and tough-talking private eye. Wesley has garnered praise for expanding this genre with a black female perspective that's been largely absent. But as popular fiction, "Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" doesn't occupy the same kind of unique niche.

The weakest books penned by the black female writers who dominate this growing category can be broadly characterized by lots of product name-dropping and the search for the seemingly elusive Good Black Man. Wesley deftly sidesteps most of these cliches but falls prey to certain variations. At one point, Eva's car breaks down on the highway and her daughter's ex-boyfriend Isaiah Lonesome, who happens to drive by, comes to her rescue. Eventually she takes in the 28-year-old trumpet player as a boarder while he's looking for a new place to live. Forty-year-old Eva reassures herself that she doesn't care what people might think of her new tenant by recalling a Billie Holiday song (from which the novel takes its name) that her Aunt Delia used to sing. With his overly symbolic surname, it's only a matter of time until Eva finally exhales and starts playing Mrs. Robinson to Isaiah's Benjamin.

A host of other dramas revolve around Hutch and Eva's breakup. Eva's daughter, Charley, calls off her engagement and chucks her plans for law school in favor of becoming a stand-up comedian. When Steven, Hutch's son from a previous marriage, comes out of the closet, the revelation almost destroys the father-son relationship. And then there's Eva's seventy-something father, Roscoe, who's fallen in love with a potentially gold-digging retired nightclub singer named Precious.

There's more than enough here for several soap operas. But with measured pacing, Wesley avoids the trap of juggling so many subplots that none is well developed. Still, the story might also have been more powerful with fewer, better fleshed-out characters. In the end, the narrative comes to such a neat full circle that the characters' trials and tribulations don't leave as much of an imprint as the reader would hope.

Wesley does her most convincing work when she focuses on one-on-one interactions. The plot unfolds kaleidoscopically, with the characters' dilemmas smoothly shifting in and out of focus. Although romantic relationships take center stage, conflicts between parents and children are the story's most engaging ones. Hutch is still dealing with unresolved bitterness in the wake of his father's death, just as Eva is with her mother's death. Each struggles to avoid making the same mistakes that threaten to alienate their own children.

Eva gradually builds a gratifying life on her own terms. She works as a librarian but has always harbored unfulfilled ambitions as an artist. Coming to terms with unexpressed grief over the death of her infant son years before allows her to unleash her creative energies for the first time in years. Her transformation from a quick-tempered, stubborn woman unwilling to concede any responsibility for her marriage's collapse into someone more introspective and self-sufficient provides one of the book's most pleasing developments.

"Ain't Nobody's Business if I Do" is carefully written and sometimes funny. The characters are believable, and Wesley has a keen ear for dialogue. And yet it's not an entirely satisfying read. For one thing, it doesn't offer especially insightful truths about marriage, friendship or family ties. It goes down easily but there's little to savor.

Rhonda Stewart, book editor at Emerge magazine in Washington.