Thursday, March 29, 2007

Finders Keepers

Karin Kallmaker
978-1594930720, $13.95

In her latest romance, Finders Keepers, Kallmaker has once again turned the genre on its ear. She has given readers a hot, romantic story that bookends two complex journeys her lovers take in order to become and find the "keepers" they desire. In the course of the lead characters' struggles Kallmaker prompts readers to seriously consider two questions at the heart of romantic love in general and the romance novel genre in particular. She asks us to consider: what is beautiful? And what makes a perfect match?

Linda Bartok and Marissa Chabot meet in a lifeboat when the cruise ship they are on sinks. The vacation is saved when they find an island. Romance blooms in the languid and lush tropical resort. Both women find in the other someone who sees parts of them that most people never notice. In Marissa's case, Linda sees not only her intelligence and wit but past the excess pounds to the strong, attractive, and desirable woman. In the Linda's case, Marissa sees beyond the highly cultivated gorgeous exterior to the strong, capable, and intelligent woman. In the physical expression of their love, they find new aspects of themselves. The sweetly romantic week is a watershed for both women and a delight for readers. When their vacation ends, Linda and Marissa each begin a struggle to better integrate their exteriors and interiors and to fulfill the potential they glimpsed via the other's eyes. Both woman will deal with their past and discover their own strength and beauty.

Linda, frequently mistaken for a popular, beautiful actress, has been running to various far-flung and out-of-the-way locales to avoid the demons of her childhood and her mother's irrational expectations for an acceptable daughter. Hiding behind what she thinks of as her fa├žade of beauty, Linda has engaged in empty sexual encounters but no one really saw her, none of the women really touched her. At the outset of one of these meaningless encounters Linda thinks, "What piece of me do you want? You have to pick because you don't get the whole me. There is no whole me anymore." (86) Until Linda finds Marissa. Time spent with Marissa allows Linda to see that she has to face and make peace with her past in order to heal and to find a future.

A computer geek with a wry sense of humor, Marissa has hidden herself in her work, oversized clothes and the all-too-easily acquired extra pounds of a sedentary job and a lonely personal life. Falling for Linda has been a wake-up call to for Marissa to stop the spiral and reclaim her body as part of herself. Since adolescence Marissa has been hiding her sexual attractiveness behind the protection of her size. Yet Linda's impression of Marissa is that she "had a passion for living and it had shown in the way she'd attacked the cliff. It showed in the way she made love. Even in the way she enjoyed water, sand and new experiences ..." (81)

Finders Keepers is not a light read, if you'll pardon the pun. It is a complex story with many layers. Marissa's struggle with weight-loss and fitness illustrates the "get thin quick without work" claims most American weight loss companies tout. (An attractive promise Americans are all too happy to buy.) Kallmaker provides insights into evaluating programs and understanding reasonable goals without being pedantic and Marissa's hard-won success is inspiring. Readers glimpse relatively small portions of Linda's childhood and the frightful and bizarre trauma at the hand of her mother. It reminds us that monetary success is no guarantee of love, health, happiness, or sanity. Yet the roots of her mother's obsessions are a dark reflection of American views toward perfect beauty, particularly epitomized by the beauty pageant circuit.

Further, Marissa is one of the owners of "Finders Keepers" a dating service that uses computer analysis of a complex and detailed questionnaire to match hopeful singles with their perfect partner. Thus the question of what makes a good match and, perhaps most interesting, what threatens to break even the best match, is an engaging thread through the story.

Despite the heavy topics and the "anti-romance" elements, Finders Keepers is a touching, powerful, sensual romance. In her trademark style, the author has breathed life into interesting, multi-faceted characters; she handles intense issues with care and insight; and perhaps most importantly, she uses humor and wit to keep the story from being too heavy. Marissa's tendency to write "letters" that she will never send to her mother, deceased father, or Linda are charmingly wry observations and the delightful scene wherein Marissa's mother announces her acceptance of her daughter's lesbianism is one that will stay with this reader. Indeed, her success in weaving all these themes into a moving romance makes Finders Keepers one of Kallmaker's best novels. Readers should make a date with Finders Keepers. You are likely to find it is a perfect and beautiful match.

-MJ Lowe