Cameo Lake
by Susan Wilson, contemporary (2002)
Pocket, $6.99, ISBN 0-7434-1277-X

I've heard good things about this author, so I'm eager to start experiencing the Wilson mojo with this one, her latest paperback Cameo Lake. It's nothing spectacular, really, but this slow-moving TV Movie of the Week drama is boosted by some really nice writing.

It's a typical "Women's Fiction" story, where every single problem in a woman's life, apparently, can be solved by a visit to some lakeside or beachside cottage/resort/bungalow. If only we all have such options in life, really. These authors must be good pals with waterfront property real estate agents.

Cleo is our heroine. Her marriage to Sean is on the rocks because she doesn't trust him after his first infidelity, they really have little in common, and... well, it's complicated as always. Her mother-in-law persuades her to stay and turn a blind eye because she will at least be respected. Or something equally "Old Catholic" (the author's words, not mine). As Cleo writes women's fiction, she experiences severe writer's block and hence borrows a lakeside cottage at Cameo to write. Hey, Grace, can I be your friend too? I need a vacation and skinny dipping is just what the doctor ordered.

Anyway, there she meets Ben. Ben was a rock star turned jingles composer, and he too has been hurt by his wife. They bond over their shared life experiences, but in the end Cleo will have to decide: her marriage or her first real chance at happiness?

Yeah, yeah, adultery. The Big A. Obviously readers who just cannot accept the A word should stay away. Besides - and I don't like this aspect at all - the author plays it safe by making Sean a one-dimensional jerk, so this is a pretty clear-cut story of a woman choosing the right guy over the loser. Still, there is a charm to Ben and Cleo's newfound bond, as the author really makes the extra effort to bring out the emotional ties between them. I sigh when Ben left his first gift to her at the porch step - a cereal box with a cute message. I actually shiver when I read their first love scene (don't worry, it's not a skanky thing, it feels like the most correct thing in the world actually). These two people are made for each other, the author says, and I believe. I believe and I root for them.

But the author drops the ball big time in the later half when the adultery - on the parts of both Cleo and Sean - is revealed and Ben's big secret causes a tabloid circus. The story begins to d - r - a - g big time. The kids of Cleo's are cute and they act like normal kids, Cleo is a smart and sensitive woman, but the charm is no longer there. After all, the emotional ties between Ben and Cleo have already reached their pinnacle, and the whole circus that tears them apart seems artificial and contrived.

More puzzling is how Ben's wife, whom he adores to the point of obsession, becomes more and more imperfect until she is just like a female version of Sean. Duh, Ms Wilson, if you want to follow the romance formula, you should try to see if everything fits together first. Ben loving so deeply a woman he knows is a cheating, fickle hussy? Am I supposed to sigh at that? I don't know, he seems stupid for holding out for so long. (Likewise, ditto for Cleo when it comes to Sean.)

The prose is lovely, though. It's a pleasure to read a romance that is all about the romance - even if it's an adulterous-tainted one - and not the ha-ha's or the demonization of ambitious women and New York. In fact, I don't even mind the adultery, for sometimes a marriage may be a mistake and it's just best to let go instead of hanging on in vain. I'm just very disappointed that as Cameo Lake continues, what promises to be very heartfelt and poetic love story of two people with shared pains and joys soon mutate into an underbaked, formulaic tale of useless ex-spouses and evil tabloid people. Still, for the emotional resonance of the first half of this book, this book is worth a look or two.

Rating: 87

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