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BOOK REVIEW: NOVEL : A West Coast Love Story--for Short-Term Visitors Only : TUNNEL OF LOVE, by Hilma Wolitzer ; HarperCollins; $20, 384 pages


I like Linda in spite of my, and her, self. She is, to put it lightly, unlucky in love, and that encompasses all kinds of love--marital, step-parental, maternal, gal-to-gal.

When we meet her, she is trying to complete a coast-to-coast trek and settle in Southern California before her recently deceased husband's Mustang conks out. Her teen-age stepdaughter, Robin, is with her because Robin's real mother has less than sufficient interest in reclaiming her. So Linda, in her late 20s, is saddled with a stepkid, an unreliable car in auto-dependent Los Angeles and no discernible job skills. Moreover, she is pregnant.

But there's something about her that's irresistible (it's impossible to read this novel without thinking about it being a movie, so for the sake of reference, this is the Meg Ryan role). No sooner have they landed in a Hollywood apartment than Linda finds Manny, manager of the local Liquor Barn, divorced, available and so instantly smitten by Linda's naive honesty that he teaches her how to be a cashier so he can give her a job.

They fall into a cozy relationship so fast that I wondered how author Hilma Wolitzer was going to vamp to the end of the book. No problem. Manny takes a bullet in the eye; the sullen stepdaughter nicknames Linda the "kiss of death," and now the reader is fairly well hooked.

Will Linda ever find true romance? Will Robin survive puberty? Will Linda find a way to support both Robin and the new baby she and her husband conceived during their all-too-brief marriage?

Natch. Before you can say "liquor store holdup," Linda has been rescued by Nathan (I don't know; maybe Keanu Reeves), possibly the only adorable, hard-working young man in Los Angeles to be swept off his feet by an unemployed mom of two who can't even keep her car in tune. He gets her a job teaching dance exercise at an upscale body works emporium, which leads to work as a private trainer for the rich and powerful Cynthia Sterling, which leads to a truly nasty subplot that pits birth mother against acquisitive power-monger.

In case you haven't figured it out by now, the entire book is the tunnel of love of the title--dark, mysterious, a little unpredictable, but worth the ride for the strong of heart.

And heaven knows, Linda is a heroine for the ages, as plucky as they come, loyal to the members of her extended family no matter how they mistreat or disappoint her, a female Job without any of his crankiness.

Linda never seems to ask, "Why me?" Instead, she spends much of her time trying to fix things. She is the optimistic pragmatist: She truly, devoutly believes in her own ability to make things better, however long it may take.

On one level she's irresistible, which is why I kept coming back to this book, night after night, despite a nagging sense that there was marginally less here than met the eye. Linda gives the reader back the sense that happiness is possible, that love is available; if a demographic casualty can come out the other end so happy, why not those of us who are a bit more socially advantaged? It's like that pop song of a few years ago--"Don't Worry. Be Happy."

A lovely sentiment, and one Wolitzer manages to convey without slipping into sentimentality or schmaltz. The problem is that Linda is a visitor, a newcomer, and something about her experience just doesn't ring true.

The setups and situations sound perilously like Big Orange cliches, the sorts of things that writers dream up, and civilians assume, after not enough time here. Cynthia is a central casting Hollywood bad girl; Nathan is a romantic descendant of Ricardo Montalban; Robin sounds like the doomed "Foxes." They're just a little too easy, a little too smooth.

And sometimes poor Linda can let faith get the better of her.

The first time Nathan gives her an excuse about not getting together (he's getting the flu or something, but no, he doesn't want her to bring him something to eat), all the reader's alarm bells go off: He's lying, you want to shout; get out of this before you get your heart broken yet again. But Linda literally braves fire when he doesn't answer his phone. What if his building's been burned? What if he's hurt?

Then she buys his explanation that he was so tired he didn't even hear her--and oh, yeah, the car was gone because he loaned it to a friend.

The only thing more unbelievable than that is that she buys it. Linda buys everything and in the end gets more than her money's worth; something of a fairy tale, in these scared, suspicious times, set in an imaginary place where Cinderella prevails. It's not the great West Coast novel. It's a visitor's love story.

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