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Unlikely Lovers Strike a Familiar Chord

November 01, 1986|CAROLYN MEYER

Unexpected Pleasures by Phyllis Naylor (Putnam: $17.95)

"Unexpected Pleasures" catches in the throat like the throb of a country-and-Western song. Foster Williams and April Ruth Bates are a totally unlikely pair to stumble upon in the pages of a novel for young adults, but their tale of love gone wrong has a familiar tune.

Foster is no kid. He's a 32-year-old bachelor whose heart is as congealed and crusted as the kitchen stove he hasn't cleaned since his folks died in an accident years earlier. The only flicker of warmth in Foster's life is his gimpy-legged dog.

Along comes April, a skinny kid half Foster's age who lives in a squalid trailer behind the diner where Foster eats his solitary suppers. He has known her for years, and when Foster hears that April might be sent off to a juvenile home to escape the influence of her soddenly alcoholic father and two disreputable older sisters, he mentions "in passing, that perhaps, if there were no other solution, he might for a time, maybe, take April in."

Before he quite knows how it happened and despite the warnings of friends and relatives, Foster finds himself driving to a wedding chapel with April beside him and an adjustable-size ring in his pocket. On the way to the wedding April tosses her breakfast, and that's pretty much how it goes from there on for the bride and bridegroom, who manage, through a combination of pigheadedness, suspicion and self-doubt, to make a bad thing even worse. It's no surprise that it doesn't work. It shouldn't.

The novel is billed as a love story, but it is primarily a story about belonging. Foster's deceased family has been replaced by the men with whom he works, the crew building a bridge across Maryland's Chesapeake Bay. The members of April's family are hustlers--her father threatens lawsuits, her sisters do you-know-what for money, and April at the age of 9 was faking "accidents" to extort money from truckers. She is a skilled survivor, better at it than Foster, but neither of them possesses an ounce of talent for relating honestly and openly to another human being.

In his own way poker-playing, horse-betting Foster is as much of a child as April, the soul of irresponsibility who would just as soon take off joy-riding with one of her sisters. When April gets a job at a restaurant, she learns what happens when people look out for each other--a "family" is created--and April understands that that is what she wants.

"We got two different lives completely," 16-year-old April observes early on, and the real bridge that Foster is building becomes a metaphor for their faltering and frustrated attempts to span the open spaces between them: gaps of age, experience, personality and values. Their efforts are both touching and infuriating.

Alternating Chapters

The story alternates between Foster and April's points of view, chapter by chapter, April's in her own twangy, ungrammatical voice. Naylor, who has written for both young-adult and adult audiences, sets the novel in rural Maryland, where men and women work at blue-collar jobs, grow tobacco, play poker, win some, lose some. The year is 1973, although the town of Medbury, with its down-at-heel diners and gas stations, feels closer to the '50s.

There is a tolerable amount of sex. Characters "do it" for a variety of reasons--for money, for convenience, for favors and sometimes for affection, but curiously, not for lust or even for passion.

There's more than a tolerable amount of tribulation, however, and as the tale rolls toward its climax the characters are swept along in a soapy plot of death, injury, pregnancies wanted, pregnancies unwanted. Fortunately there is also some wonderful humor, genuinely funny scenes that cut the suds.

No age range is given on the jacket to designate the book for young adults, and the reader may wonder why it is being marketed for that audience; "Unexpected Pleasures" is a country song for mature young-adult readers. If sometimes the twang is a bit too strong and the sex a bit too blunt, the characters are wonderful--solid, basically good-hearted folk. One wishes them well.

Carolyn Meyer's most recent books for children and young adults are "Voices of South Africa: Growing Up in a Troubled Land" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) and "Elliott & Win" (Atheneum) .

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