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UNFINISHED SEQUEL WILL LEAVE GENUINE FANS OF FICTION COLD

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A colleague was reading a best-selling thriller on a recent trip when the plane landed and he forgot and left the book in the seat pocket.

"I was about two-thirds of the way through," he said. "Just tell me what happened."I suggested that he borrow the book from the library, or from a friend. Surely if he liked the book he would want to finish reading it.

"Oh, I liked it," he said. "But just go ahead, tell me."

I finally did, realizing that he was the kind of person who likes condensed books, abridged audio books and doesn't mind arriving at a movie five minutes late. In other words, my exact opposite. Which is why he may be satisfied with the new novel "Leaving Cold Sassy" (Ticknor & Fields, $21) by the late Olive Ann Burns, but I never will be.

Sadly, Burns died in 1990 at the age of 65 before completing this sequel to her 1984 best seller, "Cold Sassy Tree." The new volume consists of the 15 chapters she did finish, her notes for later scenes and chapters, and a long reminiscence about the Georgia author by her friend and editor, Katrina Kenison.

Kenison's warm, well-written "story behind the story" is the best part of "Leaving Cold Sassy." Burns grew up in the small town of Commerce, Ga., which became the model for her fictional town of Cold Sassy. A staff writer for the Atlanta Journal Sunday Magazine, she married the magazine's editor, Andrew Sparks, in 1956. She continued to write for the magazine under her maiden name, Kenison reports, "because, as she explained it, `two hot names like Burns and Sparks would look silly together in a byline."'

Burns began working on what would be "Cold Sassy Tree" in the mid-1970s after the death of her parents and during her own battle with lymphoma. She drew on family stories, including one about her paternal great-grandfather marrying a young woman just a few weeks after the death of his first wife. Set in 1906 Georgia, her good-humored tale is narrated by 14-year-old Will Tweedy, a character based on Burns' father.

"Cold Sassy Tree" was published in 1984 and later was made into a television movie starring Faye Dunaway. Almost from the time the novel hit bookstores, fans were deluging Burns with requests for a sequel. She worked on one for the next five years, during which time her husband died, her cancer recurred and she suffered from congestive heart failure. When she became too weak to type, she used a dictaphone; her neighbor, Norma Duncan, transcribed the tapes and Burns then made revisions in longhand.

Then, in the summer of 1990, just a few weeks before she died, Burns dictated a tape to Duncan in which she expressed her hope that a way could be found to publish the finished chapters. She didn't want to let down all those fans who wanted to know what happened to Will Tweedy.

In "Leaving Cold Sassy" - which Burns called "Time, Dirt and Money" - we find out, sort of. The story begins in 1917, when Cold Sassy has changed its name to Progressive City, and Will Tweedy is 25. Burns' first chapters center on Will's wooing of a young teacher named Sanna Klein, who rooms with his step-grandmother, the fabled Miss Love. Will and Sanna's is not an easy relationship because Sanna has a mind of her own. But just as their courtship is nearing a resolution, Burns' story end.

From notes that she left behind and Kenison's reminiscence, readers then learn that Burns intended the sequel to be a portrait of her own parents' rocky marriage. But it was not going to be "strictly a biographical novel," Kenison writes. ". . . From the very beginning Olive Ann was taking liberties with their story in the name of fiction. Real life was her jumping-off point, it was even the basis for her plot, but it would not have been the whole story."

But the whole story is exactly what readers don't get in "Leaving Cold Sassy." Telling somebody what happens next is no substitute for reading the author's words, as I tried to explain to my friend. He didn't buy my argument, but I wouldn't buy this book.