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All In The Imagination 

Chick-Lit benefits from NC author's new book

There's a lot to loathe about the holidays: family angst, phony cheer, and over-the-top expectations. It's even worse when your romantic life is lacking.

In this new addition to the booming Chick-Lit phenomenon, 30-something Samantha Stone is tired of explaining why she still hasn't found the perfect man. Her friends are making babies and her mother is making her crazy. Greg, her on-again, off-again squeeze, has finally announced he's ready to commit -- to someone else. And it's that happy, happy holiday time of year again, so Sam does what any resourceful gal would do: She invents an imaginary boyfriend.

At first, it's a perfect solution. Alex Graham is a dentist. He sails and skydives. "I'm telling you, Halle Berry could walk by topless and if I'm there, he wouldn't give her a second look," Sam brags. Even better, he's an orphan so there's none of that unpleasant family baggage. But it's Thanksgiving and Sam's relatives insist on meeting Mr. Right.

It's a tangled web Sam weaves, comical but tinged with the melancholy that's all too real for countless smart, single women. Anyone who's suffered through a bad relationship can empathize with Sam's desire to rewrite the rules of love. "A single, unifying theme occurs throughout human history: It seemed like a good idea at the time," she proclaims.

Unlike a lot of Chick-Lit novels with their perky pink covers now occupying space on bookstore shelves, Dress You Up In My Love didn't start out to take advantage of the genre's popularity. In a recent phone interview from her home in Statesville, NC, author Diane Stingley said she first envisioned Samantha Stone as the central character in a mystery novel. But two things happened. "My agent said, "You're a good writer but your mystery sucks. I got it figured out by page 10,'" Stingley explained. Then the author realized, "I didn't want Samantha to solve mysteries -- I wanted her to solve her life."

She rewrote the manuscript "probably 17 times," bounced around from agent to agent, got good advice and bad advice, entered a contest or two, and finally, after nearly six years, was offered a publication deal from Downtown Press, part of the Simon and Schuster publishing empire.

Stingley believes that if she had set out to ride the wave of the current trend, her lead character "wouldn't have had her "edge.'" And she emphasized that the book is fiction. "If Sam were real, she'd be my best friend, but she isn't me. Nothing in this book ever happened to me. It came from seeing myself and my friends in our late night discussions, and the crazy things you do."

If there's anything that romantic and family relationships have in common, it's the tacit understanding among the participants that they'll accept -- and sometimes even expect -- a certain level of deception. Samantha Stone is an "everywoman" and as such, doesn't reveal any earthshaking new truths about these dynamics. But her bittersweet experiences are a refreshing counterpart to the saccharine sweetness we're force-fed each year during the holidays we endure from November to New Year's.

Amy Rogers is a founding editor of Novello Festival Press, and the author of the new book, Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas.

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