cover image THE REAL MOTHER


Judith Michael, . . Morrow, $24.95 (432pp) ISBN 978-0-06-059929-4

The bestselling pseudonymous husband-wife duo Judith Barnard and Michael Fain return (after 1999's A Certain Smile ) with a formulaic novel set in their hometown of Chicago. Saintly 27-year-old Sara Elliott works as City Greeter (aka "Everybody's Schlepper")—a job that swiftly, conveniently introduces her to both arch-villain Lew Corcoran and romantic hero Reuben Lister. Sara meant to be a doctor, but her paycheck provides for three adolescent half-siblings, ever since their mom, Tess, had a disabling stroke that landed her in a nursing home. All the other grownups have checked out—Sara's father died; Tess's second husband ran off; and Mack, eldest child of Tess's second marriage, has also vanished. Now Mack comes back, playing havoc with the kids' emotions and assaulting Sara's primacy. The novel is generally short on shades of gray, but Mack is coal black. When he isn't saying "shit" or "fuck" to his appalled, delighted sibs, he talks in odd litanies of three: "A fine robe finely made that feels fine." Ages before Sara catches on, the reader is certainly certain of the certainty that he's working with Lew to squelch Reuben's low-income housing project. Curiously, Chicago itself never comes to life, although Greenwich Village is finely drawn when Sara visits Reuben on his home turf. Alas, Mack burns down the house while she's trysting, but that's the kind of middle-America melodrama that Michael's readers seem to love. Agents, Jane Rotrosen and Meg Ruley . (Feb.)