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Published: Sunday, 5/13/2001

Gloom hangs over Plain's tale

BY NANCIANN CHERRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

LOOKING BACK. By Belva Plain. Delacorte Press. 340 pages. $25.95.

A growing sense of great sadness pervades Looking Back, the latest novel from Belva Plain, author of such best-selling novels as Evergreen, Tapestry, and Homecoming. It is a well-turned story marred only by Plain's excursions into melancholy.

That sense begins gently, in a bittersweet manner, as three friends, Cecile, Norma, and Amanda, face college graduation and look toward the future. Cecile and Norma, from the same town in Michigan, have their plans set. Cecile is to marry Peter, a rising young architect, and Norma has taken a job teaching Latin at the local country day school. Amanda's prospects are bleaker: return- ing to her family in a small Mississippi mill town, getting an office job, and facing a future with little hope of change.

To Amanda, this seems manifestly unfair. She worked hard for her liberal arts degree, but it opens few doors. And through the more affluent Norma and Cecile, she has been exposed to art, culture, and beautiful clothes, things she craves that are, apparently, all too ephemeral.

After a brief visit home in which she realizes how much she does not fit it, Amanda goes to spend a few weeks with Norma before being a bridesmaid in Cecile's wedding. During that visit, she gives in to a proposal of marriage from Larry, Norma's brother, who is taken by her beauty and her soft southern accent. Not that Amanda is swept off her feet; Larry, a real-estate salesman, is a bit ordinary. But he's hard-working, and he worships her. Even better, Amanda will be near Cecile and Norma, the only real friends she's ever had. Those aren't perfect reasons for marriage, Amanda understands, but she is determined to be a good wife to Larry while finding her own way in the world.

Norma believes herself to be destined for spinsterhood. Though blessed with a sunny disposition and an astounding memory, which made college easy for her, Norma has a physical problem that makes young men, eager to find beauty, shy away. But with her friends nearby and work she loves, Norma considers herself contented.

Cecile's marriage gets off to a rocky start, due to Peter's pride and self-sufficiency, but she is flexible and willing to adapt.

Looking Back charts the passing years and changing lives of the three women, the men they marry, and the people close to them. There is joy and sorrow, anger and laughter, frustration and contentment.

Plain is occasionally compared to Ireland's Maeve Binchy, who also released a new novel this spring, Scarlet Feather. This is unfortunate for Plain, for Binchy's work is far more textured and carefully written. Binchy makes her characters fascinating without resorting to gimmicks; Plain opts for grand tragedy when her tale begins to falter. To be sure, some lives contain grand tragedies, but Plain uses the device so often, she crosses the line into melodrama.

Until those moments, however, Looking Back is a fine tale of friendship, expectations, and betrayals, both intended and unintended, as three spirited women try to stay true to their destinies.



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