Torn between two lovers

Heroine makes us look at what we really want from our lives

"Love the One You're With" by Emily Giffin. St. Martin's Press. 352 pages. $24.95.

Bottom line: Brookhaven author's chick-lit take on the real meaning of happily ever after.

Cinderella hails from Pittsburgh, Pa., in best-selling author Emily Giffin's new book, "Love the One You're With." Not the original Cinderella, that is, but Ellen Dempsey, a contemporary version of the fairy-tale heroine.

Although Ellen doesn't have a wicked stepmother, she works and is motherless and lonely, and it takes a scholarship to send her to Wake Forest University, where her fortunes improve.

Giffin, a Brookhaven resident who has had big hits with her previous novels —- "Something Borrowed," "Something Blue" and "Baby Proof" —- excels at creating complex characters and quick-to-read stories that ask us to explore what we really want from our lives. At Wake Forest, Ellen meets her Atlanta-born roommate, Margot, and then Margot's attractive, sweetly attentive brother, Andy. In chick lit, this is where the handsome guy usually shows up to rescue the damsel in distress, and Andy fits the role nicely. Soon he's wedding Ellen and whisking her off for a Hawaiian honeymoon.

For a while, Ellen is happy, enjoying success as a photographer. Then former lover Leo unexpectedly reappears, and the fairy tale starts to sour.

Although Leo walked out on Ellen once upon a time, Ellen remembers him fondly —- make that passionately, since he's hotter than Andy —- and starts seeing him again. This is maddening, since Andy comes across as a real-deal prince whose faults, in Ellen's eyes, consist of a tendency to wear ugly madras shorts and to eat a brand of kiddy cereal that comes —- gasp —- in a box with a cartoon bunny on it. Reviewers often praise Giffin for her empathetic characters, but Ellen comes off as frustrating and annoying. It's hard to root for a heroine who has everything —- loving husband, great job and fine home —- yet is ready to throw it all away, as she admits, to pursue a lover who is "dark, difficult, [and] distant."

When Andy asks Ellen to move to Atlanta, she reluctantly agrees. She's fond, she admits, of sweet tea and cheese grits, but fears ending up in a neighborhood where women have nothing to do but swap recipes over the fence and toss tennis balls for their dogs to retrieve across lush, green lawns.

OK. Suburbia can be stifling, but as a native Atlantan, I bristled at Ellen's reluctance to cross the Mason-Dixon Line. Worse, Ellen's friends hear that she's moving and respond with a "pitying stare or a downright critical, 'Why Atlanta?' " Ellen (or Giffin) insists that this isn't really an insult to Atlanta; their remarks stem from a "smug sense that . . . the rest of the country . . . is sterile and homogenous and somehow lacking in comparison." It's too bad, though, that Ellen doesn't give more credit to Southern warmth and hospitality.

Will Ellen leave Atlanta and go back to Leo? Could Andy ever forgive her? Giffin skillfully explores the secret workings of a young woman's heart, and the often painful consequences of one's actions, although she never gives us a satisfactory explanation for why Ellen behaves the way she does. Her quick change of heart, once Leo reappears, makes us wonder if Ellen understands true love.

Giffin's ending feels rushed, as Ellen makes her choice in the last four, short chapters. Still, I wound up pulling for this flawed Cinderella anyway, just as I'd pull for anyone who is living in a fairy-tale world and in danger of losing her way.

Lynn Coulter is a Douglas County writer and author of the upcoming "Mustard Seeds: Thoughts on the Nature of God and Faith."

MEET THE AUTHOR

Emily Giffin discusses and signs "Love the One You're With." 7:30 p.m. May 30. Borders Books & Music, 3637 Peachtree Road, Atlanta. 404-237-0707.

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