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SCARLETT'S BACK Alexandra Ripley's sequel to 'Gone With the Wind' hits the bookstores today


At last tomorrow is here for Scarlett O'Hara.

Last seen 55 years ago in a heap at the bottom of the stairs, her faithless husband Rhett's "My dear, I don't give a damn" ringing in her ears, Scarlett was vowing to think about it all tomorrow.

Today tomorrow has arrived, with Warner Books' release of "Scarlett: The Sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind."

And for GWTW fans who can't wait to read the 823-page opus (priced at $24.95) by Southern romance novelist Alexandra Ripley, we can tell you what happens -- thanks to an advance copy provided by the publisher:

* Mammy dies.

* Scarlett chases Rhett to Charleston, is rejected, conceives his child when they both nearly die and realize their love for each other.

* Rhett rejects Scarlett again, sweetening it this time with a half million-dollar payoff.

* Scarlett finds her roots in Ireland.

* Rhett finally shows up again. . . and then. . . and then. . .

"Scarlett" hits bookstores nationwide today, accompanied by a well-orchestrated media campaign that will plunk Ms. Ripley onto talk shows and newspaper pages around the world.

And the world is ready.

"It's like the biggest thing since 'Gone With the Wind,' " said Dee Peeler, book buyer for Greetings and Readings, a Towson bookstore. "It's phenomenal. Every day there are more orders. People can't wait too much longer."

"So far there's tremendous interest," confirmed Melvin Gordon, president of Gordon Books, which has six Baltimore-area stores. "We've gotten hundreds of reserve orders. As far as advances are concerned, it's even bigger than Tom Clancy."

Since its publication in 1936, "Gone With the Wind" has sold 28 million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize, spawned a movie that earned similar acclaim. And even "GWTW" fans who have doubts whether Ms. Ripley -- or any other author -- could ever match the sweep of history and commanding characterizations of the Margaret Mitchell classic, say they'll read the sequel.

"I'll buy it, I'll read it just out of curiosity," said Rosemary George, a Falls Church, Va., free-lance writer who has read "GWTW" "so many times I'm embarrassed to say. I've run through many paperbacks."

"In a way I really don't want to know what happens," Ms. Peeler said about what surely must be literature's most famous cliff-hanger. Calling "Gone With the Wind" one of her three or four favorite books, Ms. Peeler added that while she'll read the sequel, she expects to be disappointed.

"When publication was postponed last year, we knew there were serious problems," she said. "But that's not going to stop it from selling."

Ms. George -- whose friends give her "GWTW" memorabilia for gifts and has accumulated T-shirts, mugs, cards, posters, a music box and a Scarlett doll -- found the "Scarlett" excerpt published last month in Life magazine disappointing and formulaic. "They're just characters," she said of the Scarlett and Rhett created by Alexandra Ripley. "The real Scarlett and Rhett died with Margaret Mitchell."

Margaret Mitchell died in a 1949 traffic accident, after steadfastly refusing to tie up the loose ends in the lives of Scarlett and Rhett with a sequel. Perhaps she was wise enough to know that a rejected heroine, putting off painful thoughts until tomorrow, would linger in readers' minds and imaginations in a way that a happy ending never would.

But Ms. Ripley -- who signed with the Mitchell estate five years ago to write the sequel, reportedly getting an advance of several million dollars -- goes for the happy ending. It is doubtful that anyone will hold his breath waiting for a sequel to this sequel.

The new book also lacks the historic texture of the original. With the Civil War and Reconstruction behind them, the characters of GWTW play out their lives on a constantly shifting set. But in "Scarlett," although there's a token stab at exploring the Irish independence movement, the world is a pretty static place.

As for those sex scenes that early publicity promised would bring a '90s perception to the steamy love of Scarlett and Rhett -- well, "swirling, spiraling rapture" are about as steamy as the words ever get.

Tomorrow in the Today section of The Sun: an interview with Alexandra Ripley.

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