Reviving a fan

Monday Book Reviews

November 29, 1993|By Dave Edelman

LETTERS TO JENNY. By Piers Anthony. TOR Fantasy. 288 pages. $18.95.

KURT Vonnegut once observed that science fiction writers comprise a social club that's easy to join. Producing science fiction doesn't require a special talent for writing or an expertise in human nature; all that's necessary for membership is exuberance and a zest for technology.

Science fiction and fantasy writer Piers Anthony is a member in good standing. Best known for his perennially popular Xanth novels, Mr. Anthony has also penned the "Apprentice Adept" series, the "Incarnations of Immortality" series and the "Bio of a Space Tyrant" series, among others. Wading through the sophomoric humor in Mr. Anthony's novels can be a chore. But, (( as "Letters to Jenny" shows, Mr. Anthony is overflowing with the most redeeming of human traits: honest compassion for others.

"Letters to Jenny" is a collection of letters written to one of the author's biggest fans, a 12-year-old girl named Jenny. Knocked into a coma by a drunk driver, Jenny lay deaf to the world for months until her mother asked Mr. Anthony to write to her. He did, promising to name a character in the latest Xanth novel after Jenny -- and, like magic, she began to respond.

From then on, Mr. Anthony made it his business to correspond with Jenny once a week, helping coax her out of the coma and giving her reason to struggle for life. Within a year, Jenny had made it out of the hospital and into the author's novel "Isle of View." With the publication of "View" and its author's note explaining Jenny's situation, the girl became an instant celebrity in the science fiction club.

Although Jenny's gradual recovery is a heartwarming story, it's Mr. Anthony who makes the book a pleasant read. The author manages to balance his multiple roles of doctor, teacher, and entertainer with a tireless enthusiasm.

One of the tactics Mr. Anthony uses to keep Jenny interested is to spread the mundane details of his life out on the table for her amusement. Mr. Anthony's daily activities are much less glamorous than those of other authors who run the book-signing circuit. He spends his time tending his Florida tree-farm home and writing.

The trouble with "Letters to Jenny" is that we get too much of Mr. Anthony and not enough of Jenny. That's a shame. The little we do know of her is that she's a bright and vivacious girl. Her condition, of course, dictated against her writing letters, but Mr. Anthony might have given us more information about her and her medical progress.

Piers Anthony will never win the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize, and most of his books probably won't be around 50 years from now. But "Letters to Jenny" shows him to be a selfless lover of people and animals alike.

Dave Edelman writes from Cockeysville.

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