cover image Better Luck Next Time

Better Luck Next Time

Julia Claiborne Johnson. Custom House, $28.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-291636-5

Johnson’s rollicking comedy (after Be Frank With Me) sizzles, thanks to the immensely appealing voice of its aging narrator. Ward Bennett, a retired doctor now in a nursing home in 1988 Tennessee, describes himself as seen in a photo taken of him at 24, wearing cowboy garb and surrounded by ladies, as a “Cary Grant in cowboy boots.” During the Depression, Ward took a job at the Flying Leap Dude Ranch near Reno, Nev. He was there to chauffeur, guide the women guests on trails, and dance with them. (Anything more was strictly forbidden.) Ward reminisces about two of the women: tiny, cautious, gravel-voiced Emily and a brash, six-foot blonde aviatrix named Nina, who takes Emily’s teenage daughter, Portia, under her wing after Portia shows up unexpectedly. After Ward learns both his parents have died in a fire, and the ranch owners fire Ward for sleeping with Emily, he serves in WWII and finishes college on the GI Bill, then becomes a successful doctor. He realizes looking back that he could never have made a life with Emily (she assumes he’s an ignorant “rube,” despite his being educated and from a wealthy family), but he has no shortage of lively stories, such as the time he, Nina, and Emily get drunk on schnapps and steal costumes from a local Shakespeare production for a masquerade ball. This brims with the clever banter and farcical situations of a classic Capra film, and is deepened by dramatic scenes and portrayals of the hardworking ranchers. Johnson’s novel soars. (Jan.)