'Thief of Words': love, lies, redemption

April 20, 2003|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

Thief of Words, by John Jaffe. Warner Books. 256 pages. $19.95.

Can we ever escape our pasts in order to make a worthwhile future? Can love really be better the second (or third) time around? These compelling questions twist at the heart of John Jaffe's tender little roman a clef love story, Thief of Words. (John Jaffe is the pen name of Jody Jaffe and John Muncie, who are married. Muncie is a former editor at The Sun.)

Fresh out of college, Annie Hollerman was a hot property ready to set the journalistic word afire. Attractive and smart, with a cascade of red hair of the sort that "drove Botticelli and Rosetti to canvas," Annie knew how to beat out the competition to get what she wanted. What she wanted was to be the most indispensable writer at the Charlotte Commercial-Appeal. The means she chose to achieve that goal, however, got her fired and left her with a lifetime of regretful what-ifs.

Fast-forward two decades. Exiled from journalism, Annie is now a successful literary agent in Washington. Divorced and wearing her 45 years well, she spends her nights with manuscripts, not men, which her happily married best friend, Laura Goodbread, finds an appalling waste of good hair, fine bones and the raging hormones of a 40-something woman (which are, for the uninitiated, equivalent, as Annie tells Laura, to those of a teen-age boy).

Enter Jack DePaul, Laura's features editor at the Baltimore Star-News. An attractive 50-year-old with "a good butt" recovering from the incendiary affair that led to his divorce, Jack tells Laura he's ready to meet someone new. The matchmaker obliges and Annie and Jack embark on a tentative yet joyous affair, led by Jack's amorous wooing through e-mails in which he begins to rewrite the regretful moments of their lives. But what about Annie's past and what about Kathleen Faulkner, the slinky editor with whom Jack had his affair? Can two people truly be honest with each other and reveal their secrets and lies without sending the other fleeing into the night?

When the Star-News embarks on an investigative piece about plagiarism and Kathleen turns up in Jack's hotel room late one night during a conference, secrets are revealed and all appears to be lost.

But this is a love story and as such must have a happy ending, one which Jack must somehow write for himself and Annie.

Based on a true story, Thief of Words has the verve of verisimilitude. Jack's e-mails to Annie are rich and textured, and it's easy to see why she falls for him. He's sexy and complicated and even his irritating know-it-all college-age son isn't an impediment. Annie, however, is not so lushly drawn (except for the excellent hair) and although the book is ostensibly about her, she never comes as fully to life as Jack. She seems not to have come to grips with her secret nor what it has meant in her life. Her character is just a tad too patly configured for the complex persona the author has invested her with.

Problematic, too, is Jack's response to Annie's big secret -- or lie. After a roaring tirade in the newsroom, it seems odd he would simply dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps he hasn't the integrity we are led to believe he has or perhaps life has just a tad more gray areas than the oft black-and-white world newspapers present. Either way, the subject at the core of the novel deserved more resolution than it received.

Nevertheless, Thief of Words remains a thoroughly engaging romantic page-turner. It's difficult not to get caught up in Jack's literary flights of fancy (night trains, dinner with Pablo Neruda, a flamenco dancer in Spain, an encounter with a rattlesnake) and the vicarious pleasure of Annie and Jack's warts-and-all, middle-aged romance. Thief of Words is bound to be scattered beach-side this summer and deservedly so.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of numerous books and a former romance editor. Her weekly column on TV and politics, "The Lavender Tube," appears in newspapers throughout the United States. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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