Tuesday, August 19, 2003

'Sharp Focus' all talk, no action

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Susan Ford's Sharp Focus could have been so many things.

It could have been a wonderfully voyeuristic peek behind the velvet ropes that separate the public and private White House. Midnight fridge raids? Maids short-sheeting the president's bed? Breakfast power chats while still wearing fuzzy bunny slippers?

Ford did, after all, live there during dad Gerald Ford's tenure.

And it could have been a wonderfully tense mystery, what with its assassination attempts at the highest levels of government. Co-author Laura Hayden is, after all, an accomplished writer with eight respected novels behind her.

But, as item E on the college entrance exams reads: None of the Above.

Instead, it's all talk and little action built around a plot that crawls slowly to a yawning conclusion.

Focus is the story of 25-year-old Eve Cooper, daughter of widowed President Elliot Cooper, big sister and mother figure of the rambunctious 15-year-old Drew, niece of stand-in first lady Patsy. President Cooper is seldom seen, and when he is, it's not so much as president as worried father.

Worried about Eve because she may be an assassin's target. She'd be easier to get to than the president and a better kill in the long run because her death would be so devastating he'd be rendered so ineffective his government would collapse.

Attempt one is a glider at the U.S. Air Force Academy. It crashes and kills a passenger on the first flight after Eve's. The assumption is that the assassin's timing was off and that the accident was meant for her.

A lot of talk and a lot of hand wringing follow. But there's very little investigating - at least that the reader sees.

Attempt two comes in San Antonio when someone with a high-powered rifle opens fire on Eve's limo, shooting out the back tires and shattering the rear window.

More talk, more hand wringing and a bit of investigating, but nothing like what it should be with the FBI, two police departments and the Secret Service on the case.

And then complications begin to arise: By coincidence - don't you hate that? - the woman killed in the glider crash was the sister of Eve's good friend. And six weeks pregnant, maybe by her boyfriend, maybe by the pilot who went down with her.

And what's this? Aunt Patsy's starting to fall for retired Air Force Gen. Buckley. Eve's starting to fall for Craig and Rob. None of those plotlines is ever developed.

But somewhere in there, there's the grain of a plot, maybe even a good one. But it's overshadowed by all the talk.

Talk about the media glare that goes with living a fishbowl existence in the White House. Correction: It's not talk. It's whining - about not being able to go out for pizza and beer without media stalking. About not being able to find a man for a bit of necking without the Secret Service stalking. About having your days and nights planned to the minute by a staff of zillions.

It's also too much talk about teenage boys - in this case the high-spirited Drew - teetering on the brink of hormonal frenzy. About Aunt Patsy's perfect composure in the face of most everything. About older brother Charlie's computer skills. About the president's determination to put family above all else.


Can't we have some bloodletting? Or at least a threat a little scarier than a nasty e-mail or a bullet bouncing off bulletproof glass? Or how about a little more insight into how the Secret Service really operates when there's a threat to the First Family?

At least Ford's characters are likeable - Drew's a stitch, and Patsy is a warm and fuzzy Betty Ford type - so Focus isn't a total loss.

But close.


E-mail jknippenberg@enquirer.com

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