'Every Secret Thing' by Lila Shaara

Beauty a burden in local writer's debut

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By Lila Shaara
Ballantine Books ($24.95)
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Lila Shaara emerges as novelist in her own right

Gina Paletta is a knockout beauty, a former Victoria's Secret model, a woman whose God-given curves make men swoon.

And she is doing everything possible to stop the swooning now that she has left her glamorous Manhattan lifestyle behind and reinvented herself as a religious studies professor and single mother of twin boys.

Instead of traipsing around in Manolos and miniskirts, she hides her flawless figure behind baggy sweaters and jeans in an unnamed college town a few hours from New York City.

Instead of hitting nightclubs and flaunting her sexuality, she devotes herself to mundane mommy duties and swears off dating.

Instead of "Sex and the City," this is more like "Asexual in the Suburbs."

Gina seems to have succeeded in hiding from life, until one day a constable jolts her by showing her a photo of three college boys. Two of them, Jason and Tim, are in her class, and are suspected of murdering a third boy. Gina finds herself ensnared in the mess because Jason and Tim have posted old modeling photos of her on their Web site and have doctored them so they are pornographic, explaining the mystery of why there are so many male students in her class.

This is the compelling setup of the debut novel by Lila Shaara.

The book keeps you turning the pages on the strength of the main character, a neurotic beauty who has a refreshingly sarcastic inner monologue going on. When two attractive and single detectives show up, she nicknames the cocky pretty-boy "Cutie Pie," and the big and brooding one she calls "Big Bear" -- until she falls in love with Big Bear, who then becomes Tommy.

The book is an intelligent look at the power and burden of female beauty, and the on-off romance between Gina and Tommy is realistic, hooking you to the end of this romantic thriller.

Her conflicted emotions toward motherhood -- she married her late husband because she got pregnant -- are also compelling.

Unfortunately, the book veers off into too many unresolved subplots: a fellow supermodel who has cancer; enough family dysfunction to sink four families; one too many stalking scenes.

Too bad an editor didn't trim a few of the plotlines from this otherwise promising debut.

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at crouvalis@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1572.


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