"Charmed Circle," by Carol Smith. Warner Books. 355 pages. $24. If only "Charmed Circle" had stuck with charm and not started running in circles.
Carol Smith's second novel begins in full beach mode, on the shores of Antigua, where a young British doctor named Jo is adopted by a circle of friends who eventually become a huge part of her life. While on their annual holiday in the Caribbean, they drink, watch sunsets and idle away the time. The rest of the year, they talk and agonize about love, careers and money as most of them work hard at home and visit each other in New York, London, South Carolina and Amsterdam.
In Jo's group are a gay couple - a New England judge and a Dutch art dealer - and several women: an aging Southern belle and her overbearing daughter, a delicate British concert promoter, and a high-strung New York bank executive. The story of their developing friendships, slight and soapy, was made for a week by the ocean. Unfortunately, this story is not the whole story.
The prologue indicates that one of the characters, art dealer Victor, is doomed. He's also the most likable character, so when he's murdered halfway through the book, a good deal of "Charmed Circle's" pleasure is lost. And then there's what passes as the mystery; the killer's identity is obvious a full 200 pages before what's supposed to be the big revelation, and getting there is an exercise in pain.
The characters' lack of brain cells is partly to blame, particularly Jo's. She's a terrible judge of character and a doormat, to boot. In addition, as the years go by, she waits around pining for her true-love-at-first-sight, a mysterious stranger whose identity any canny reader will have figured out by mid-book. But that's another "revelation" saved for the end.
"Charmed Circle" is undone not only by its characters' stupidity but by its own contrivances and repetition.
A number of unlikely coincidences, all connected to the mystery, undercut the novel's credibility. And smaller flaws become grating: For instance, the book egregiously misuses the term "y'all" when the Charleston mother and daughter speak in exaggerated Southern parlance. The women in the book continually have romantic fantasies about the two gay men in their circle and generally poor judgment about everyone else. Insignificant points are made over and over.
If only "Charmed Circle" hadn't taken itself so seriously. With competent writing and glamorous settings, it whets the appetite with hints of blissful escape, then tries and fails to approximate serious drama. These characters belong on a beach, where their intellects won't be challenged. They simply aren't up to challenging ours.
Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere and elsewhere.
Pub Date: 7/26/98