I'm consistently surprised that more American readers have not yet discovered Penny Vincenzi. A bestselling author in her native England, Vincenzi has yet to find the audience she deserves on this side of the Atlantic. Captivating enough to gratify fans of escapist fiction and romance novels, skillful and sophisticated enough to draw in more literary readers (perhaps in spite of themselves), Vincenzi's novels sprawl satisfyingly through time and place, from character to character, but never get out of control.
Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2005, SHEER ABANDON is Vincenzi's latest to be released in the U.S. In some ways, it's her most restrained novel in scope; unlike her multi-generational Spoils of Time trilogy, for example, SHEER ABANDON's main action takes place over just a couple of years, with the exception of a few flashbacks to 1985, where the story really begins.
The novel opens with a terrifying scene of a young woman, just back in England from a post-graduation trip to East Asia, giving birth alone in a Heathrow Airport bathroom. Following the birth, the frightened young woman leaves the baby in a cleaning cupboard, watching unobserved until she is sure the infant has been discovered and will be safe.
Readers figure out pretty quickly that the terrified young mother is one of three acquaintances who met while backpacking through Thailand after graduating from college. Fast-forwarding 15 years, the three women are all successful, confident professionals, none of whom seems to be harboring a dark, shameful secret. So which one is it?
Is it Jocasta, a harried reporter for one of Britain's top tabloids? Growing up, she was constantly disappointed by her busy father --- now she's disappointed by her philandering brother. Her glamorous job and handsome boyfriend have failed to satisfy her --- she's tired of the ethical compromises her boss asks her to make, and she's really tired of waiting for Nick to settle down. When a wealthy older man takes interest, Jocasta has a hard time turning down promises of comfort, commitment and glamour.
Or is it Martha, a successful, driven corporate lawyer who often works all night to satisfy her clients? She grew up in a loving but poor minister's family and now enjoys the material comforts her success has bought her. But when Martha grows increasingly disillusioned by the economic opportunities available to others in Britain, she flirts with becoming a member of Parliament, representing a new party. And, much to her surprise, this confirmed single gal finds herself falling for a most unlikely man.
Or could it be Clio? She's hiding something from her overbearing husband, a brilliant surgeon but cruel man who wants nothing more than to have his wife, a respected physician in her own right, barefoot and pregnant. Will Clio come clean with her husband, and will she find the courage and confidence to leave him and start over?
Adept readers (especially those who read mysteries) will not remain in the dark for long, but it's so much fun to see how Vincenzi reveals the truth, playing with conventions and coincidences, having characters meet unexpectedly (or miss each other by moments), gradually drawing these very different women into a web of relationships. Add to the mix that abandoned baby (remember her?), now a beautiful teenager who bears a striking resemblance to one of the women, the baby's father and a dozen other subplots and minor characters, and you have a trademark Vincenzi novel.
Vincenzi's books are distinctive but rarely formulaic. Just when readers think they've figured everything out, she throws them a curveball (or in this case, a hairpin turn on the highway). Her fast-paced style relies on hooking readers by shifting perspectives frequently and suddenly, resulting in a series of cliffhangers that will keep readers glued to their beach blankets until sunset.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011