Oprah's First Author Finds Round 2 Tough

THE MOST WANTED

By Jacquelyn Mitchard

Viking

448 pp., $24.95

It's not what you'd call a match made in heaven: a 14-year-old girl and a 25-year-old convict. Add a conjugal visit, and you've got the first half of Jacquelyn Mitchard's latest bestseller.

Given its movie-of-the-week story - complete with helpless newborn, raging fire, and murder - "The Most Wanted" would not be what's known in publishing parlance as an "important book."

What makes it worth noting is its author: Her first novel, "The Deep End of the Ocean," was the first choice of the Oprah Book Club.

Like "The Most Wanted," that book also had a disturbing premise: a kidnapping forcing a family to rebuild.

But unlike its predecessor, the second novel is not particularly thought-provoking. Also missing is what was most impressive about Mitchard in the first book - her ability to write good dialogue. It's a skill new novelists often lack, but one Mitchard has likely acquired from her years as a syndicated columnist.

Her capabilities are hinted at, though. One of the best conversations in the book is when Arley, the child-bride, and Annie, the lawyer helping her get the conjugal visit, are getting to know each other:

" 'So how did you come to marry so young?'

'It's not so young. We just read Romeo and Juliet, and she was exactly my age.' I couldn't help but smile. She saw it.

I said, 'Yes, but that didn't work out so well.' "

Annie and Arley take turns telling the story of the intelligent, attractive Texas teen who turns to a prisoner for love. Arley's search for the affection she's not getting at home and her awakening sexual feelings - complete with steamy encounters - figure prominently.

Beyond its hard-to-swallow pre-mise, the novel is hampered by too many details. From the start, it's clear that Arley has a baby, and husband Dillon is no longer on the scene. But in the process of learning how all that came about, readers have to wade through Annie's love life, her sister's past affairs, and Arley's family history. By the end, the author is trying too hard to tie up lose ends.

To her credit, Mitchard brings an unexpected element to this mix. Arley and Dillon write poetry and send it to each other when they are courting. Mitchard asked a poet friend to create their love poems. She also includes Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman" in the front of the book, a foreshadowing of the poem's role in this turbulent love story.

Still, it's too bad the book had to be turned around quickly to be ready in time for beachgoers. With more vetting, it might have been a better showcase for Mitchard's enjoyable writing style.

She makes Annie, for example, delightfully self-aware, as in this fight near the novel's end: "Arley shouted at me, red-faced.... Of course, deeply mature individual that I am, I yelled right back - lovely things about where she might be if it weren't for my help and what had her own mother done for her...."

When better presented, Mitchard's writing can be a pleasure to read. Her stories just need more time to ripen - and some pruning.

* Kim Campbell is on the Monitor staff.

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