Let's face it. Not every writer has been able to make the leap from the romance category to mainstream fiction without producing a literary stumble or losing a bit of her audience. That is not the case for Donna Hill, dubbed the queen of African-American romance, whose latest novel, If I Could, features many of the author's trademark qualities: strong characterizations, complex moral questions and absorbing plot lines. Regina Everette, the book's heroine, is having a mid-life crisis of monumental proportions. A journalist, she fights emotional burnout from one too many crime stories, insensitive editors with a need for the grisly and sensational, and grueling deadlines. Her restlessness has now seeped into her life after hours, shattering the false calm of her sedate marriage with the seemingly perfect husband. That sense of emptiness and frustration compels her to leave Russell, her husband, and her job on the newspaper for a chance to find her own peace and follow her dream of being her own boss. Neither her husband, children or friends know what to make of this sudden transformation in Regina and hope she'll snap out of it. Hill does a fine job of detailing her character's inner conflicts without sinking into a tirade of psychobabble and soapy pathos. Even Regina, as Hill portrays her, seems to be making it up as she goes along.

Nobody is more spooked by the changes in Regina's personality than her two gal-pals, Antoinette and Victoria, but they fail to persuade her to hold on to what they see as the perfect life. The turmoil in Regina's life forces her friends to question what is happening in their own tidy, stale existences and to realize that neither of them is truly satisfied with her own identity as a woman or a wife.

Hill uses her trio of female characters to ask a bevy of moral questions that probably confront most women at some point in their lives. First, how much are you willing to sacrifice for your own brand of happiness? Second, are you willing to deal with the consequences of your choices without excessive regret and second-guessing? To put these questions and others under the spotlight, she creates a series of engrossing scenes that delve deeply into the timely issues of female enpowerment, self-determination, race, class and the duality of choice.

As the novel proceeds, both of Regina's girlfriends watch their own lives derail, while their floundering buddy slowly regains her footing and reclaims her life on her own terms.

If I Could should be a welcome treat for Hill's fans of her unconventional romance novels as well as a revelation for critics soured on the ongoing series of cookie-cutter relationship fiction coming to market. This is commercial fiction with heart, soul and bite.

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