by Joanna Trollope

The Bedfords and the Woods are true bosom buddies. They have shared youthful hopes and middle-age disappointments. But their friendship faces a severe test when Fergus Bedford announces that he's leaving his wife, Gina. Distraught, she turns to her oldest friend, Laurence Wood. After sympathy turns into late-night kisses, then a clandestine affair, there is grief enough to go around.

Bestselling British novelist Joanna Trollope has staked out the rural upper-middle class as her literary quarry and shows an especially sensitive understanding of the pain children suffer when their parents break up. "I'd give anything to have the yelling and screaming back again, anything," 16-year-old Sophy Bedford moans. The children's anguish is matched by the helplessness and guilt of their parents. Friends is marred by stock characters and a pat ending, but Trollope's portrayal of parents and their children is haunting. (Viking, $23.95)

Bottom Line: Decent tale of a marriage in trouble

by Ron Chernow

Book of the week

In his appropriately colossal biography of the larger-than-life industrialist John D. Rockefeller Sr., author Ron Chernow (who won a 1990 National Book Award for The House of Morgan) uses newly available archives to delve into the psyche of this paradoxical giant. The son of a penniless, bigamous con man and patent-medicine salesman, Rockefeller turned his shady family name into a synonym for prodigious wealth and worldly success. A strict evangelical Baptist, the founder of Standard Oil apparently had no trouble squaring his religious principles with his rapacious and unethical business practices: manipulating the transportation industry, forcing competitors out of business, bribing elected officials, violently breaking strikes and blithely ignoring the government's attempts to limit the power of monopolies and trusts. A frugal man given to quarreling with grocers over household bills, Rockefeller was also a legendary philanthropist, donating millions to medical research and education. Chernow's detailed picture of this "implausible blend of sin and sanctity" is a scrupulously balanced, frequently fascinating and humanizing portrait of a figure of seemingly superhuman energy and ambition. (Random House, $30)

Bottom Line: Rich bio of a very rich fellow

by Kaye Gibbons

Sifting through the memories of a long and eventful life, Emma Garnet Tate, the heroine of Kaye Gibbons's new novel, is drawn back to an unforgettable day in 1842 when her slave-owning father murdered a black man on their Virginia plantation. From this bloodcurdling opening, On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon progresses through the stages of Tate's fictional autobiography, from her privileged but harrowing antebellum childhood through her marriage to a saintly North Carolina doctor who later tends the horribly maimed casualties of the Civil War.

To its credit, Gibbons's story is always doing—or attempting—two things at once: portraying the troubled domestic existence of a family dominated by Emma's bigoted and violent father while giving us a broader picture of southern life before and after the war. But Gibbons's efforts to find an authentic historical tone results in a vocabulary and style so stilted and eccentric that the novel often seems to have been translated into English from a quaintly archaic—or highly private—language. (Putnam, $22.95)

Bottom Line: Despite awkward lingo, a nicely detailed portrait of the Old South

by Roy Blount Jr.

When Robert Benchley, the celebrated New Yorker humorist (and Roy Blount Jr.'s boyhood hero), was 54, he quit writing, fearing he was no longer funny. Now Blount—a latter-day Benchley who contributed sidesplitting prose for many years to such magazines as SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and Men's Journal—is 56 years old. "Every morning," he writes, "I wake up and wonder, 'Has it happened yet?' "

It has not, judging by this memoir in which he plumbs the depths of his Georgia childhood, partly to explain what made him so darned witty in the first place. Turns out it had a lot to do with his smothering mama ("Trying to tell my mother you loved her was like trying to tell Michael Jordan you could take him one-on-one"). At times Be Sweet (that's what she used to tell little Roy) is like listening to Blount work out his oedipal issues on a psychiatrist's couch. In the process, he unloads so much material that you can practically flip to any page and find an achingly funny anecdote. It's worth the price just to hear his tale of interviewing actress Daryl Hannah. And the occasional limericks and verse offer a surprise bonus. Lose it at 56? We can only hope Blount will go on forever. (Knopf, $24)

Bottom Line: Witty memoir of a leading humorist's life

>THE TIN MAN Dale Brown In this thriller, high-tech military hero Patrick McLanahan goes home, then goes mano a mano with a neo-Nazi terrorist. (Bantam, $24.95)

HIGH CONCEPT Charles Fleming Don Simpson was famous for whammo flicks like Top Gun, but this bio reveals the late producer's own extraordinary, if kinky, story. (Doubleday, $23.95)

GRADUATION DAY Edited by Andrew Albanese and Brandon Trissler From Sting to Martin Luther King Jr.—wise, funny and stirring commencement speeches. (Morrow, $22)

>Judy Blume

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Judy Blume began writing Summer Sisters (Delacorte) much as she did her 1970 classic, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret—as a story for young people. "I thought of two girls from very different family backgrounds coming to spend a series of summers together," says Blume, 60, of the book that evolved into her first adult novel in 14 years. By the end, Vix and Caitlin are 30. "I never dreamed that they would get so old," Blume says, smiling.

Not that her readers are likely to mind: Blume's books have sold 65 million copies, largely, she believes, because she writes about widely shared "inner feelings about growing up." Still, summoning those feelings can tax Blume, who lives on Martha's Vineyard and Key West with her third husband, writer George Cooper, 61. Her latest work endured a "difficult pregnancy of 20 drafts." When her son Larry, 34, read the manuscript, he wept, she says, and she hopes the novel's more adult themes will appeal to the under-20s as well. After all, says Blume, "a teenager is not going to buy a book in the children's department."

  • Contributors:
  • Emily Listfield,
  • Francine Prose,
  • Thomas Fields-Meyer,
  • Grace Lim.