Mothers, daughters, old-world epic

January 03, 1999|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,special to the sun

If you are an aspiring first novelist who is not also a supermodel, senator, serial killer or TV anchorperson, you face two difficult tasks: You must actually write your own book, and you must rely primarily on literary merit for publicity. And you can't look to publishers for much encouragement. It is easier for them to create instant novelists from the casts of sitcoms or Court TV.

All the same, real writers keep emerging from the vast untelevised wilderness, with nothing to distinguish them but the quality of their books. Elizabeth Strout's ``Amy and Isabelle'' (Random House, 304 pages, $22.95) is a quiet work of beauty from a new voice that could easily be lost in the usual blah-blah of media chatter. But, for those who are weary of over-hyped novels by celebrities with nothing to say, ``Amy and Isabelle'' is a wonderfully refreshing treat.

Here is a first novel with everything one expects from a powerful work of art: a compelling story, solid characters, vivid scenes, lyrical prose and a wise understanding of common life. It is the tale of a mother at odds with a daughter whose love life is more than either woman can handle.

Emotionally ``shipwrecked'' in a small town where escape seems impossible, daughter Amy takes refuge in her new sexuality while her mother, Isabelle, struggles with old passions and a growing resentment of Amy's beauty. Elizabeth Strout perfectly captures the heartache and confusion that bedevil this pair as they struggle to mend old wounds without inflicting new ones.

Maria Amparo Escandon's ``Esperanza's Box of Saints'' (Scribner, 247 pages, $12) is another first novel that casts a sharp light on the bond between mother and daughter. Set in a Mexican village, this paperback original by a young teacher and businesswoman from Los Angeles makes skillful use of magical realism to explore the mystical nature of a mother's love for her child.

Having suffered the awful news that her daughter has not survived a routine operation, Esperanza Diaz finds hope from the saint of desperate causes, San Judas Tadeo, who appears on the grimy glass of her oven window and announces, ``Your daughter is not dead.''

This vision inspires an amusing and poignant quest for the lost girl, with all sorts of adventures involving eccentric characters and surprising twists of fate. It is a charming little story and is the basis of a new Spanish-language film produced by John Sayles.

Lilian Nattel's ``The River Midnight'' (Scribner, 416 pages, $25) is a fascinating look at ordinary lives in a Polish village during the last century. A first novel by a young Montreal writer who is the daughter of Polish immigrants, this work has the feel of an old-fashioned 19th-century epic, with a strong sense of community and history.

Nattel has used extensive research and family oral traditions to reconstruct a lost world of lively, resilient people who find strength in their families and their religion. She is also fond of magical realism and uses it to bring added color to a tale that seems colorful enough without it. Read the book for its keen sense of history, and try to overlook its sometimes awkward efforts to make Polish peasants sound like New Age shamans.

Former Apple Computer whiz kid Joe Hutsko is not exactly a celebrity, but his inside knowledge of a trendy subject makes him the kind of first novelist that publishers warm to. A suspense story about power struggles within a cutting-edge computer company, ``The Deal'' (Forge, 320 pages, $23.95) is full of Geek-chic techno-talk and thinly disguised Silicon Valley gossip; but it lacks most of the usual ingredients of good fiction, including a convincing plot, memorable characters and fresh prose.

When he strays from his favorite subjects of business and technology, Hutsko sounds like a robot trying to connect prefabricated sentences to an assembly-line narrative. Executives live in ``palatial'' homes and work in ``impressive'' offices and send e-mail messages that ``spread like wildfire.'' If you like the isolated world of rich computer nerds and enjoy the bland prose of corporate newsletters, this is your book.

On the other hand, if you want literary elegance and charm, you will love A.L. Kennedy's ``Original Bliss'' (Knopf, 214 pages, $21). A Scottish novelist whose reputation is high in Europe, Kennedy makes her American debut with this darkly comic tale about an unlikely love affair between an emotionally paralyzed woman and an angry man addicted to pornography.

This little gem of a book is hilariously funny about sexual obsession and brilliantly perceptive about the dynamics of human relationships. Kennedy has a real talent for exposing common weaknesses in prose of startling originality. She writes amusingly about ``the etiquette of masturbation'' and other neglected topics.

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