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Decent Young Lovers With Old Values

October 11, 1986|RICHARD PECK | Richard Peck's newest novel is "Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death" (Delacorte). and

Acts of Love by Maureen Daly (Scholastic: $12.95)

Maureen Daly is the spiritual grandmother of the young adult novel. Well before the term "YA" was coined she wrote the perennial best-seller, "Seventeenth Summer." With "Acts of Love" she returns after 44 years to the sort of love story she pioneered when she was herself a YA.

Young love, it seems, can be soulful still, and lovers part only to meet again. If there be villains (an unprincipled daddy in this case), they're lightly limned and fully forgiven. And Daly hasn't forgotten the wisdom of planting the first kiss in the second half of the book.

In the decade of pregnant-at-puberty, suburban sprawl and permissive parenting, can there still be novels about decent kids from coherent communities who see themselves as full-time members of their own families? Sure, if they're Daly bred.

Paragons of Virtue

Henrietta (Retta) Caldwell and Dallas Dobson are a couple of young paragons that many a modern parent would love to see made available for adoption. These teens are early risers, animal nurturers and big helps around the house. Dallas holds down at least two jobs (one of them his father's) and still finds time to invite friends over for study breaks. Retta reads "Jane Eyre" in Spanish.

As late as Page 138, when Retta's ready to give herself to Dallas, he says, "trust me. This is all wrong for us. It can't be this way. I can't be a spoiler like my father."

In the late '80s such characters are downright revolutionary, but even so, the plot is somewhere between traditional and timeworn. It's the old one of the girl from the right side of the tracks (a proposed highway bypass in this instance) and the boy from the wrong.

Retta's the daughter of Carter Caldwell, whose fine old family is threatened with further decline when the highway bypass imperils the woodsy integrity of their property. The anticipated battle--the Family versus the Right of Eminent Domain--somehow never happens. As in real life, Retta's folks take inadequate compensation (and move to California).

Ne'er-Do-Well Dad

Dallas, new in town, lives up behind the mill where he fathers his ne'er-do-well and never-married dad. At the high school he's looked upon as an Interesting Older Man because he lost whole semesters while covering for his father. Why these rolling stones have come to rest in Zenith, Pa., raises a mystery we're hardly set up to ponder.

The minor characters are minor indeed. Retta has a younger brother who, strangely, is never around unless he's needed. He's needed to console her when the family must leave their land: "I think I understand why we must leave, Retta. . . . It's what Carter needs, mostly. He loves this place so much, and he's loved it so long . . . well . . . he can't stand being nearby, can he, Retta?"

Strange, almost eerie dialogue from an 11-year-old boy.

A lot happens in this novel because the author wants it to happen. Against all odds, Mrs. Caldwell visits their new California home, leaving Retta alone in the house--to clean out the attic. There she finds pages from her mother's adolescent diary, in which her mother writes about having a date with a boy, only to never hear from him again.

Artificial Obstacles

Her mother's traumatic experience is only one of many artificial obstacles hastily set up between Retta and Dallas to keep the story moving. It's easy to see that these conflicts are not very heartfelt, though, and so few readers are inclined to believe that distance, the class structure and Mom's memories will part Retta and Dallas forever. True, Maureen Daly's original readers can inhale the tale for its perfumed nostalgia and its somewhat shabby-genteel gentility. But what of younger ones?

Well, it's a step up for Harlequin and Sweet Valley High addicts, though even here they can find comfort in such passages as, "In his eyes she could see a tiny, quivering reflection of the flames and knew he must see the same fires as he looked at her."

Yet while "Acts of Love" is unlikely to appeal to those seeking sensation and self-threatening freedoms, I suspect it will enjoy a wide audience among the many young adults today who are seeking the security of parental rules and self-set standards.

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