Fortune's Hand

Belva Plain, Author Delacorte Press $25.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-385-31692-7

Plain adroitly crafts bestsellers (Homecoming, Secrecy, Promises, etc.), lacing modern morality tales with current issues and old-fashioned melodrama, often creating emotionally resilient, believable characters, and sometimes generating clich s just to smooth the path to true love. Her latest effort starts off predictably as earnest young Robb MacDaniel leaves his loyal fianc e, Lily, in the small Southern town where they grew up, in order to pursue a law degree, using insurance money from an accident that has killed his parents. In the big city, Robb falls for Ellen, the Wellesley-educated daughter of local legal icon Wilson Grant. Marrying Ellen, Robb firmly steps up the ladder of success, casting off ideals, as he cast off Lily, at each rung. Robb's professional rise and moral descent drive him to increasingly desperate acts, but he doesn't allow his struggles with regret to thwart his ambition. Plain keeps the tissue count low in this tearjerker by focusing on Robb--although her sympathies are clearly with the long-suffering women who love him. Because of the novel's New South location and legal-ethics theme, it occasionally seems to misstep into Grisham territory. Plain is much surer on domestic ground, such as when she unravels the family secrets and emotions surrounding Robb and Ellen's retarded son. Unsentimental supporting characters (Lily's mom, Robb's best friend) also help make this one of her most convincing tales of personal choice and human weakness. (May)
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