BOOKS / In brief

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Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend by Robert James Waller, Heinemann pounds 9.99. While Waller's record-breaking first novel, The Bridges of Madison County, seems immovably settled at the top of the bestseller lists, his second is already with us. This time, Waller branches out from his small-town setting into academe, first, then all the way to India, but his obsession is the same: 'The old Darwinian shuffle. Something primal, something way back and far down. Something whispering deep in the bones or genes, 'That one.' So it happened: a kitchen door in Iowa opened and likewise did Michael Tillman when Jellie walked through it in her fortieth year.'

It is with prose like that, apparently, that one can become a very rich novelist. And with prose like that we follow the story of Michael and Jellie from the Cedar Bend campus (jeans, workshirts, Thanksgiving turkey, fishing trips) to the wilds of Kerala (flowing tunics, hot nights on the lake, a tiger).

Just as these places have their predictability ('The beat of life in village India is in adagio time'), Waller's people don't really have personalities; they have the revealing detail, the telling quirk. Instead of a character, Michael has interestingly named pets; Jellie has 'gray eyes'; while Jimmy, Jellie's husband, shows his true self at the dinner table by 'carving - he never ceased carving, it was his life-way'.

Yet Waller has struggled manfully to escape the formulaic romantic novel, to ruffle the stereotypes just a bit. His lovers are fortyish - she married to one of his colleagues, with an Interesting Past, he a full professor, not married to anyone, and with a past that seems to consist mostly of tinkering with motorcycles. They wait, in the way of lovers of a certain age, months and months before declaring their love, and more months before doing anything about it (he honourable, she guilty). And when the chase across India is over, Waller even tries to rot up the happy-ever-after (she restless, he difficult).

But it's no good. He can wriggle as much as he likes; he won't get out of it. Slow Waltz may not be quite as soppy as The Bridges of Madison County, which had an uncanny ability (like brass-band music) to bypass the brain and go straight for the tear-ducts, but it is a full-scale romance nevertheless. Lots and lots of people will like it.