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Suspenseful ‘Summons’ surprises

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A Summons to New Orleans; by Barbara Hall; Simon & Schuster; 286 pages; $23.

Utilizing a smart, witty, engaging style, Barbara Hall, a television writer who has been well-received through such critically acclaimed shows as "Northern Exposure" and "Chicago Hope," as well as the current "Judging Amy," has written her third novel. It is a tightly plotted story of three thirtysomething women, former roommates at the University of Virginia, who are reunited in New Orleans for a holiday that turns into an emotional roller coaster.

The focus of the story is Nora Braxton, who goes to New Orleans at the request of Simone Gray, model-turned-food-writer. Nora's life is chaotic as she is dealing with a husband who went AWOL not only on the marriage but on his taxes. Poppy Marchand also has a troubled marriage, has recently found religion and is worried sick about her past sins.

Nora and Poppy soon discover that the supposed purpose of their trip — a fun vacation in an exciting city — is a sham. Instead, Simone has brought them there to be her support while she testifies in a trial for the man who has been accused of raping her a year earlier. Although Nora and Poppy are shocked at Simone's tragedy, they do their best to sympathize while putting their own troubled lives under intensive scrutiny.

The story is based on the real-life experience of the author, who is obviously making a statement through the book about common misperceptions about rape, rapists and rape victims. Simone is a beautiful, charming woman who appears to have her life together, yet her friends wonder why she put herself in a position to be raped, and they are troubled that she retells the story with differing details.

The accused, on the other hand, a slight black man named Quentin Johnson, appears in court in a white shirt and tie, and he seems nonthreatening and nervous. Could it be that Simone's story is not true? How is it she could not overpower him? Wasn't she asking for trouble when she talked to him and danced with him and allowed him to walk her to her hotel?

Finally, the most intriguing question they ask is, "Is the devil really a small man in a white shirt?" (Appearances may be deceiving.)

But the stereotypical setup is only part of the story. The two ex-roommates, whose own problems with men are legion, find themselves sympathizing with the defendant, even though they distrust men. The trial is complicated by two developments — Adam, Poppy's husband, a surgeon who does plastic surgery on abused women, comes to New Orleans to try to save their marriage, and Nora meets an intellectual cab driver named Leo, who coincidentally used to be in love with Poppy.

The two places that take the biggest hit by the author are the University of Virginia (saying that when founder Thomas Jefferson talked about the pursuit of happiness, he really meant "the absence of dread,") and the city of New Orleans, pictured as a cesspool, particularly dangerous to women.

Hall, a master of character development and dialogue, has created a riveting story that is suspenseful and surprising. "A Summons to New Orleans" delivers a powerful moral message while shedding considerable light on the depths of friendship.

E-MAIL: dennis@desnews.com