Originally created 04/09/06

'Rattled' has more than one snake in the grass



Heather Peters wanted all the trappings of exurban New Jersey bliss - a 5,000-square-foot McMansion, a perfectly manicured lawn and a driveway wide enough to park her Land Rover.

When she and her lawyer husband and troublesome young son move into the newly constructed Galapagos Estates, she believes her dream has been realized.

Local farmer Harlan White, on the other hand, detests Heather and all the other new people who are "ruining everything with their great big ugly houses, and all those new strip malls with the tanning salons and sushi places."

That doesn't stop him from taking a job as the Peters' handyman, something they need because they can't do anything for themselves.

Heather and Harlan clash just pages into Rattled, Debra Galant's humorous debut novel.

Rattled is another in a long line of books that explore Americans' desire to acquire. In Ms. Galant's tale, the American Dream involves big houses and open spaces in exurbia, that affluent region where suburbs meet countryside.

Ms. Galant, who wrote commentary about suburban life for The New York Times for five years, is a keen observer with biting wit. She pokes fun at many facets of exurbia but is evenhanded in her ridicule.

Rattled uncoils when Heather spots a timber rattlesnake lounging on her patio. She shrieks and screams until Harlan kills it with a Ming vase and croquet mallet. Rattlesnakes are an endangered species and killing them is a crime in New Jersey.

The crime is soon discovered, but Heather allows a fumbling local reporter to believe she was the one who snuffed out the snake. Her fib balloons and hits the national media, and suddenly Heather is being heralded for her bravery. She's being whisked off to the Today show and gets calls from Oprah's producer. Her pink Chanel suit looks perfect in the glow of the media spotlight.

Her alleged act, however, enrages animal-rights activists, who stage protests outside her home. Meanwhile, she sparks controversy among the competitive mothers at her son's school and raises the ire of her homeowners' committee.

Soon, Heather is being driven from her home, failing to uphold her duties as "class mom," and neglecting her family.

Her little white lie has spun dangerously out of control.

When Heather discovers that her picture-perfect house was built - illegally - on an endangered rattlesnake habitat, she hatches a plan to get even with her venomous neighbors and the greedy developer.

Ms. Galant weaves several story lines together with seamless, clever transitions, and her tale gathers momentum with each page.