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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Captivating, Complicated Cora Sharpe : DELUSIONS OF GRANDMA by Carrie Fisher ; Simon & Schuster, $22, 255 pages


For the first 185 pages of her new novel, "Delusions of Grandma," Carrie Fisher manages an amazing achievement: a snappy, wise-cracking novel that imperceptibly and without any loss of bite turns wrenching, poignant and wise.

As narrated by Cora Sharpe, script doctor extraordinaire--we want to say to her, using Fisher's distinctive brand of quip, "Physician, rewrite thyself"--this is a reluctant love story of a relationship backed into.

Cora, "a captive of her own captivating quality," is a character you want to hang around just to see what observation she'll toss off next. Smart doesn't begin to do her justice. She decides, for instance, that the phenomenon of talk-show hosts interviewing other talk-show hosts is "one of the twelve signs that the world is ending."

" 'Are you seeing anyone?' was a phrase she enjoyed--it implied that there are people you see and people you hear. And those you saw, you dated. The rest you experienced by phone."

When she meets Ray, Cora represses her initial aversion to his career (he's a lawyer), and becomes smitten:

"She stared at Ray's long, ringless fingers, his pale, careful hands, his straight, dark eyelashes. He made a minor vocabulary error and she inwardly, magnanimously forgave him."

Try as she might, she can't go slow. "Some parliament in her pheromones had just named him king, and she was doing all she could to keep her cardinals from sending up the puff of white smoke from her hair."

And what do you know? Cora's feelings are reciprocated. More than reciprocated: Ray wants to get married, but Cora, burned by past experience, hesitates. "She seemed innately proficient in the overlooked skill of letting people down. A world-class disappointer, she had made her way though the world letting men down without even trying. She took it from knack to virtuosity."

She was right to worry. "In a sense, as soon as she had Ray, and he her, he was a little lost to her forever. She didn't do things quite as right--he didn't love her the way he had out of the box. She never wore as well as that first protracted fit. He had closed the deal, and despite the fact that it was a dazzling, hungry negotiation, closed was closed. And the next phase was the next phase. But just in case, she touched up her makeup before she got in bed with him at night."

Yes, Cora has hopes about Ray. "She'd catch commitment from him like a cold," and maintain the relationship, even if she wasn't ultimately interested in marriage. "Vows seemed ridiculous--it was hard enough to keep appointments."

What we don't realize as we happily negotiate our way through her blitz of wit, is that Cora is getting to us. That beneath that hard-as-lacquered-nails exterior, this is one vulnerable woman who wants--what do you know?--what most everybody else wants: to be loved, valued, cared about in a lifetime kind of way. And just as this revelation dawns on us, three events take place in Carrie Fisher's novel: 1) Ray starts to pull away; 2) Cora's old friend William, dying of AIDS, moves in; and 3) Ray and Cora rally together, focused on helping William--in the process, comforting each other.

Suddenly we have segued into a different kind of novel--stripped of their mutual artifice, Ray and Cora emerge as brave, kind, decent people, and she, without quite admitting it, finds herself in love.

At which point, of course, William dies and Ray, true to Cora's experience of male form, leaves.

The breakup scene is painful, dignified--just right.

"Cora had stopped listening somewhere in the middle of what he said, concentrating more on the rhythm and the tone until his voice stopped and she could pluck herself from this place of hurt. Eventually she realized that Ray had stopped talking and was staring at her."

But Cora is a survivor, and when she discovers that she's pregnant, she decides to keep the baby and re-insulates herself with humor. "The trouble with getting introspective when you're pregnant," she says to her writing partner, Bud, "is that you never know who you might run into."

Concluding that all the baby (she's sure it will be a girl) will inherit from the father is "his ability to sleep during the day," Cora sets about getting her life in order.

And where in all this, you may ask, is the eponymous "Grandma"? Don't ask. When Viv, Cora's retired costume-designer-of-a-mother enters the picture in the last brief section, the novel seems to get out of control. Ray, a character Fisher has beautifully developed, virtually disappears, replaced by several one-dimensional caricatures: the loyal chum, the zaftig mom, the dotty-but-more-with-it-than-you-think grandpa.

It's a shame, but hey, who says you have to read a book all the way to the end? For most of its length, "Delusions of Grandma" is a wildly funny, heartbreaking story about the complicated business of love, and Cora is a person you wish you could pick up the nearest phone and call. Whatever she had to say, you'd want to hear it.

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