"The Most Wanted," by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
Viking. 407 pages. $24.95.
They done her wrong. Jacquelyn Mitchard had my vote for "Oprah writer most likely to make it back to the best seller lists without Oprah." For one thing, her debut novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean," had already hit some hardcover bestseller lists -admittedly, on the lowest rungs, for only a few weeks - when it became the inaugural choice of Oprah's Book Club in September 1996.
True, Oprah Winfrey quickly proved her television talk show was FTC the world's biggest book club. Every book she has chosen has been catapulted to the top of the best seller lists. But Mitchard had already sold movie rights to her book and was well on her way to earning back her large advance (a reported $500,000 for two books) before the nod from Our Lady of Perpetual Self-Help.
And what was Mitchard's reward? According to a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, it was an accelerated writing and editing schedule for book #2, so it could be beach-ready for the summer of '98.
The result, "The Most Wanted," is a book that a less bottom-line- minded publishing industry might have counseled its writer to shelve. The idea is simply unworkable, and it is strange testimony to Mitchard that she makes it even momentarily involving.
Arley - 14, beautiful and brilliant - has fallen in love via mail with the Texas state prison inmate Dillon LeGrande. Allowed to marry by her pathologically neglectful mother, she then hires lawyer Annie Singer to sue for her right to a conjugal visit. Impregnated on her honeymoon - of course! - Arley is forced into hiding with her baby when Dillon escapes. The end comes in fire and gunfire, along with a deus ex machina that could have been lifted from the now-forgotten film "Raggedy Man." As Candy said so famously: Good grief, it's Daddy!
Mitchard's first book, about a kidnapped child, was not perfect - the ending was at once pat and incredible, a "safe" solution that undercut the story's integrity. But it was solid and smart, filled with recognizably real people. "The Most Wanted" makes sense only as a 14-year-old girl's feverish dream. Suppose I was beautiful. Suppose I was a sensitive poet wise beyond my years. Suppose a dangerous, older man fell in love with me. The problem is that the story is told not only by Arley, but by 39-year-old Annie. Annie's complicity in Arley's self-destructive quest is never credible.
Mitchard does not embarrass herself. Her story may be ludicrous, but her writing has a crisp, reader-friendly vigor. Still, it grieves me that she was allowed to tackle this unwieldy melodrama. Yes, I understand the drive to establish franchises and name brands in fiction. I also believe any publisher might do what Viking did.
I have only this plea for these would-be burger kings: Serve no fries before their time.
Laura Lippman is a Sun reporter and the author of a mystery series set in Baltimore. Her second novel, "Charm City," won the 1998 Edgar Award for best paperback original. The third Tess Monaghan novel, "Butchers Hill," will be published by Avon this month.