Piety, comedy, pedophilia, treasure LATE-SUMMER NOVELS

July 26, 1998|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the sun

In the late-summer novel harvest, of particular note is Allegra Goodman's first novel, "Kaaterskill Falls" (Dial, 352 pages, $23.95). Goodman is a fiction-writing phenom who published her first collection of stories, "Total Immersion," when she was 21 years old. Her second collection, "The Family Markowitz," was a rare commodity-a national best seller with genuine literary merit.

Goodman's new book is a thoroughly engrossing tale, set in 1976 among the Orthodox Jewish summer residents of the tiny town of Kaaterskill in upstate New York. Calling themselves the Kirshners, after the surname of their revered rabbi, this Jewish sect migrates every summer from its Washington Heights enclave to live and pray in rented bungalows, surrounded by the year-long residents of the picturesque mountain town.

A mixed chorus of voices resonates through the novel. There is Elizabeth Shulman, the devout mother of five girls who harbors the defiant dream of owning her own grocery store; Andras Melish, a Holocaust survivor unable to share the unwavering faith of the rest of the Kirshner community; the fearsome Rav Kirshner himself, enduring his final illness and struggling to determine which of his two sons - the obedient but unimaginative Isaiah, or the brilliant but secular Jeremy -will be his successor.

There are many lesser personalities here too, some more successfully fleshed out than others, but those three protagonists, and particularly Elizabeth, seem luminously real. Goodman applies a mathematical precision to her mountainside descriptions and to the unfolding of her plot, yet allows her characters a gloriously untidy complexity.

On the lighter side, "Stately Pursuits," by the English novelist Katie Fforde (St. Martin's Press, 280 pages, $22.95), is a rollicking romantic comedy, a sort of "Bridget Jones's Diary" for "This Old House" enthusiasts.

Hetty Longden, recovering from a failed affair with the boss of her management-consultant firm, leaves London to house-sit at the country estate of an ailing uncle and finds herself falling in love with both the grand old house and her uncle's heir, a lout named Connor who wants to tear the house down.

Hetty resolves to repair the estate and make it a profitable stop on the stately-homes touring circuit, while Connor, admiring her pluck, falls hard for his pretty young adversary. Fforde's novel suffers from excess - there is much trite dialogue and romance-novel cliche - but the details of restoring a 16th-century English manor house can only be beguiling to Anglophiles and do-it-yourselfers alike.

Another British author, A.N. Wilson, who is prolific even by the standards of his logorrheic countrymen, has published 16 novels in this country since 1977. His 17th, "Dream Children" (Norton, 224 pages, $23.95), is an unsavory little work about a well-regarded London philosopher who has been secretly carrying on a love affair with a little girl who lives in the house where he is a lodger.

The grim joke here is that all of the various women who inhabit the house (including the child's lesbian mother and her lover) are infatuated with the philosopher and each, blissfully unaware of his illicit activities, fancies she might have a chance with him.

What capsizes the book, though, is that Wilson never convinces the reader of the man's power over these women (or over the 10-year-old girl, for that matter); far from seeming irresistible, he's middle-aged, dumpy, and, in the end, simply deranged. Wilson's novel is advertised by his publisher as "a 'Lolita' for our times." But I've read Nabokov and this, sir, is no "Lolita."

Back on native ground is Van Reid's diverting first novel, "Cordelia Underwood" (Viking, 400 pages, $24.95), which is, among other things, a lengthy ode to the author's home state of Maine. Set in 1896, Reid's book is an old-fashioned picaresque tale loosely based on some real events, including a botched attempt to recover a treasure chest buried by Captain Kidd somewhere in the northern Maine wilderness. There are many tall tales here, involving the likes of escaped circus bears, sea monsters, rogue politicians, loggers and seamen, scoundrels, honest gentlemen and fair ladies.

These tales circulate around a rather complicated plot involving pretty young Cordelia Underwood's travels through Maine to claim a plot of recently inherited land.

Along the way she withstands several romances, a kidnapping and plenty of enthusiastic if hackneyed descriptions of Maine's many charms.

The language is a rather wan imitation of Dickens' in "The Pickwick Papers," as are many of the novel's comic situations. But Reid's love for the history and landmarks Down East is sincere, and his story is entertaining.

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