Creepy, genteel, cheeky -- and love

Novels Of May

May 09, 1999|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

Anyone familiar with the books of A. M. Homes knows that she traffics in lurid provocation. Her last novel, "The End of Alice," featured a girl who chews on the knee scabs of a 12-year-old boy and ends up stabbed 64-four times by a psychopathic pedophile. Homes' gimmick is to force the reader into a position of complicity with the most grotesque creeps imaginable, exposing both the dark impulses of ordinary people and the lovable qualities of miscreants.

A great writer can occasionally pull off this kind of stunt, but Homes is no genius, as her latest novel, "Music for Torching" (Weisbach/Morrow, 368 pages, $26), proves. Revisiting a pair of characters who originally appeared in one of her short stories, she aims here to show the anxious, ugly underside of suburban life. Miserable in their marriage, Paul and Elaine Weiss try unsuccessfully to burn down their Westchester County house, engage in joyless sex with each other and various neighbors, wander around mulling over the reasons for their unhappiness, and eventually witness their 9-year-old son taken hostage and shot by a classmate at the local elementary school.

Homes' book suffers, to be sure, from excruciatingly bad timing in the wake of the school shootings in Colorado. It suffers more, however, from problems over which Homes had decidedly more control: annoying and unbelievable characters, one-note morbidity and overwrought prose that exhausts the reader's patience. In the end, all the sex and violence in the world couldn't save this fretful melodrama from its own emotional bankruptcy.

It's a relief to turn to the work of Scottish author Shena Mackay, whose novel "The Artist's Widow" (Moyer Bell, 176 pages, $21.95) is as modestly affecting as Homes' is noisy and trifling. Mackay's book is set in a vibrant, contemporary London and features Lyris Crane, the elderly widow of a painter who is forced to negotiate life alone after her husband's death. Complicating matters are various characters eager to exploit Lyris, including her great-nephew, Nathan, a loutish conceptual artist who schemes to divest her of her art collection, and Zoe, a feminist documentary filmmaker whose attempts to interview Lyris betray her woeful ignorance of art and women.

What's wonderful about this delicately scathing novel is the author's graceful way of making her many characters, who are variously genteel and boorish, seem utterly sympathetic.

Geoff Dyer is a young English writer whose third novel, "Paris Trance" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 274 pages, $22), is short on plot but long on cinematic atmosphere. Twenty-six-year-old Luke Barnes moves from London to Paris with the intention of writing fiction, but becomes involved instead in a love affair with Nicole, a beauty from Belgrade.

At the same time, Luke befriends another Englishman named Alex, who in turn falls for an American interpreter named Sahra. These four young expats spend a lot of time in cafes and nightclubs, getting high, having sex and vastly enjoying themselves. The idyll, which ends badly for one couple and fruitfully for the other, has a pleasingly nostalgic atmosphere, soaked in art-house images and stylish tristesse.

Two American knockoffs of the popular British novel "Bridget Jones's Diary" debut this month: Suzanne Finnamore's "Otherwise Engaged" (Knopf, 224 pages, $22) and Kate Christensen's "In the Drink" (Doubleday, 288 pages, $22.95). Like "Bridget Jones," both books are soulful comedies starring cheeky urban women yearning to get married.

Finnamore's is the less accomplished of the two, starting out smartly but losing momentum as it tells, via month-by-month diary entries, all about Eve, a San Francisco advertising copywriter, and her stormy engagement to a marketing exec named Michael.

There are many pre-marital fights and tearful reconciliations, leading, inevitably, to a storybook wedding. The glib sentimentality here is tempered a bit by Eve's constant wisecracking, which adds a much-needed sophistication.

"In the Drink" has more depth. Its heroine, 29-year-old Claudia Steiner, having daydreamed through a series of menial temp jobs in Manhattan, now finds herself working for a 70-ish socialite and best-selling author named Jacqueline del Castellano.

Claudia is smart, charming and stuck: she hates being at the mercy of her tyrannical boss, yet she doesn't know what else to do. She's also harboring a deep crush on her childhood friend William, now an ambitious lawyer who is hiding a few sexual secrets of his own. Like its protagonist, Christensen's book is funny and intelligent, filled with dead-on New York character types and locales. It is also remarkably conscientious, delving quite seriously into Claudia's sad Arizona childhood as the daughter of a single psychotherapist mother. What seems at first glance to be little more than a fictionalized sitcom turns out to be a quite poignant coming-of-age tale.

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