It's that time of year when publishers bring out warm, squishy love stories that make perfect gifts and might even have enough heft to last for more than one season. "The Perfect Love Song" by Patti Callahan Henry ("Where the River Runs," "Driftwood Summer") would seem to be one of those. More than one love story, it has two, but they're similar. The men are brothers, Jack and Jimmy Sullivan, and they both are members of a band called the Unknown Souls. The women are Kara, their next-door neighbor when they were kids, and her best friend, Charlotte.
Kara has been in love with Jack since their South Carolina childhood, interrupted only by a brief engagement to a golf pro before true love triumphed. From then on, their love story flows along with no snags at all. In Jack's thoughts, "It seemed that every few minutes he was amazed again into realizing that this way his love His Kara. Here was all he'd dreamt of."
Jimmy had barely met Charlotte when he began writing her a love song, the song that provides the book's title and the frail thread holding the feeble plot together. Their love runs smoothly. They have a few disagreements, but their spats don't last long except for the last one, which does drag out enough to fill up the last third of the novel. This is warm and squishy enough, but I'm afraid it is also pretty dumb.
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An award-winning reporter and syndicated columnist, Rheta Grimsley Johnson was beginning a Christmas book when her husband died unexpectedly. She dropped that book, but sometime later, "whether by habit or in desperation or in an attempt at self-medication," she began this one -- "Enchanted Evening Barbie and the Second Coming, A Memoir." It is also a Christmas book, and while it wanders from her native Georgia to Louisiana to the Cotswolds and Paris, she keeps coming back to her holiday memories. "When I was young," she writes at the end, "Christmas was magical, enchanted. ... Now that I'm alone, Christmas is inevitable."
But while the ending is nostalgic and melancholy, the rest of the book is a largely joyous recounting of a life that had far more high spots than most. She remembers her first teddy bear, still "the most understanding male I've ever slept with." She recalls other childhood Christmases, when getting one special Barbie seemed vitally important, and when she wrestled with conflicts stemming from growing up Southern Baptist.
There are chapters on growing up and high school and early love affairs. She has great stories about the small-town weekly newspaper she started with her first husband. She writes about her beginnings as a columnist and the affair that broke up her marriage and finally about the man with whom she "fell hopelessly in love." They were together until his heart gave out.
Johnson has been writing about her native South for more than 30 years. While this book seems at first to be a collection of columns, the separate chapters are linked together to form a kind of informal autobiography. "Writing is always hard," she concludes, "but at times it can be necessary, too. It was necessary for me to write this book. ... And it was hard." Hard for her, but a pleasure for the rest of us.