Weekly Wire
NewCityNet "Child"'s Play

By Shelly Ridenour

JULY 17, 2000: 

Someone Else's Child by Nancy Woodruff (Simon & Schuster), $23, 252 pages

Here's hoping I don't jinx Nancy Woodruff's luck, but I'm going to go out on a limb and make a grandiose prediction about her new book, "Someone Else's Child": Oprah Book Club joiners get ready, for you will be reading this debut novel in the near future.

All the crucial Oprah elements are here -- small-town scandal, tragic loss, guilt, forgiveness, religious undertones, forbidden love, outsiderism, strained parent-child relationships, unrequited love. Perhaps it's not fair to reduce Woodruff's story down to themes; it is, in fact, a compelling and thoughtful read that only occasionally veers into sap.

"Someone Else's Child" bounces back and forth between the dual narratives of Jennie, a 34-year-old onetime overachiever derailed by an unplanned teen pregnancy and who, still living in her sleepy hometown, married to her high-school sweetheart, keeping up with her job planning high-school reunions and tending to the demands of her teenage and newborn daughters, is mourning the loss of her dreams; and Matt, a 15-year-old home-schooler new to town. It's not a stretch to figure out where the outsider shadow falls, especially after Matt is behind the wheel of a fatal car accident that takes the lives of Jennie's daughter's best friends. It was a simple matter of timing -- the birth of Jennie's second daughter -- that kept the elder daughter from being in the car as well, and so a grateful Jennie, her own family scarred but still spared ultimate tragedy, becomes Matt's guardian angel in an unforgiving town. Taking Matt under her wing with the offer of a summer job, Jennie thinks she will be also be able to offer him trust; she does, along with a shared interest in literature and word play -- things her own husband does not understand -- and, inevitably, the boy begins falling hard for the older woman, even as he enters into a tenuous crush with her daughter. By the same token, Jennie finds herself inexplicably... not drawn to Matt, but to the hopefulness of youth, so much so that she doesn't even see how hopeless the future looks to him as he first craves, then fears, punishment for his actions.

Woodruff can have a remarkably subtle touch, even in dealing with the universal clichés and emotions of sexual awakening; the wreck happened while Matt was stealing glances at one of a trio of flirtatious teenage girls ("He couldn't think of Rachel or Tara or how it would seem to other people, kissing these girls, one, two, three, all in a day, how careless, cruel and careless it made him appear"), and he is later haunted by uncontrollable masturbatory fantasies of the dead girl. And in remembering Jennie's own long-past feelings of first lust, Woodruff manages to capture that strange mix of breezy innocence and insistent longing. However, something happens toward the end that takes the book into TV-movie land, as Woodruff seems to feel a last-minute urgency to cram in all the lessons of morality and youthful devotion, and how alienated we all feel at one time or another.


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