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Scarlett's Not the Same

Scarlett By Alexandra Ripley Warner Books $24.95

"After all, tomorrow is another day." Since Scarlett O'Hara's stirring declaration at the end of Gone with the Wind, decades of tomorrows have come and gone. Millions have wondered what would happen tomorrow, and the inevitable answer has finally arrived. If Scarlett was not going to win Rhett back, why have a sequel?

Before Alexandra Ripley presents this not-so-astonishing revelation in Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, the author hauls Scarlett from Tara to Atlanta to Charleston to Savannah, finally depositing the nomadic heroine in Ireland for 500 pages before allowing her to recapture Rhett.

To be fair, no author, not even Margaret Mitchell, could ever write a truly satisfying sequel to one of the most beloved novels ever written. Mitchell knew this and refused to write a sequel. Gone with the Wind is not merely a love story. It encompasses the turmoil of the Civil War, the disastrous impact this conflict had on the lives of honorable and not-so-honorable Southerners, and the story of a thoroughly tantalizing heroine, the implacable Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler.

In Scarlett, Ripley leaves the South behind to explore the conflict between the Irish and the British in the 1870's, as witnessed by a Southern belle with Irish blood. The effect is less than enthralling. Scarlett lived and breathed the South in Gone with the Wind; in Scarlett, she is essentially a spectator in a far less interesting saga.

Ripley tries to update the tone of the novel--she carefully avoids using dialect for her black characters and evades the topic of race relations after the war entirely. In order to do so, Ripley ships Scarlett off to Ireland to discover her roots. Unfortunately, the South which Scarlett leaves has been incorrectly reconstructed by Ripley. The graceful antebellum South which Ripley depicts, full of honor and traditions and social proprieties, was destroyed by the Civil War.

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Southerners did their best to keep the Old South alive after the Confederate defeat, but they were not nearly as successful as Ripley would have the reader believe. Except for an occasional economic upheaval, the war appears not to have ravaged the lives and souls of Ripley's characters at all.

Ripley takes many of her characters from the original novel--Mammy, Ashley Wilkes and many others reappear. Their appearances are perfunctory, as Ripley devotes the bulk of her energies to the development of many new characters, most notably the scores of O'Haras that Scarlett meets both in Savannah and in Ireland. Ripley cannot do much with characters like Ashley and Aunt Pittypat; Ashley remains wishy-washy, and Aunt Pittypat still faints.

All of the really interesting characters were killed off in Gone with the Wind, except for two: Scarlett and Rhett. These two alone should have provided sufficient sparks for a sequel. But Ripley has managed to turn Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler into pale, insubstantial shadows.

Ripley's Scarlett and Rhett are at least vaguely recognizable. Scarlett comes up with a well-placed "Fiddle-dee-dee" here and there, and Rhett remains a veritable sultan of sarcasm. Somehow, though, one gets the impression that Ripley had the Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable movie characters in mind when she wrote this novel. Scarlett and Rhett say all the right things and make all of the right gestures, but they lack substance.

Ripley has stated that she identifies more with Melanie Wilkes, the epitome of southern womanhood who perished at the end of Gone with the Wind, than with Scarlett. As a result, Ripley's Scarlett contains a good deal of Melanie within her. Scarlett buys Ballyhara, the O'Hara family's ancestral Irish home, where she becomes "The O'Hara," family matriarch.

After a waterlogged tryst with Rhett results in a daughter, Scarlett suddenly becomes something quite extraordinary: a devoted mother. Having become a model of domesticity, Scarlett now resembles the matronly Melanie--Ripley's tempestuous heroine has lost her fire.

Fortunately, Rhett does not undergo any such astounding transformations. He remains the same old cynic with a heart of gold. But Ripley has him sailing back and forth to Ireland so frequently that his random appearances become aggravating.

The reader is all too aware that during one of these visits Rhett will break down and acknowledge that he still loves Scarlett desperately (although it is hard to imagine why). When he finally does, one feels a sense of relief that the chase, and consequently the novel, is finally over.

As Gothic romances go, Scarlett is not a bad read. For all of the novel's problems. Ripley has concocted a tightly-knit story. Some of the sections involving Irish nationalism have been written with quite a heavy hand. But Ripley's prose elicits chuckles and tears at the appropriate moments, and the reunion between Scarlett and Rhett is touching, if a bit contrived.

Scarlett weaves together the lives of scores of old and new characters in a very readable manner. The disappointing nature of the book as a whole is not entirely Ripley's fault, as her task was nearly impossible from the start. She has attempted to conclude a tale that was never meant to be concluded. Margaret Mitchell said that there could never be a sequel. She was right.

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