Fielding, Grimes, Colegate, Lowy

Six New Novels

January 28, 2001|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,Special to the Sun

A half-dozen new novels usher in the new millennium with social satire, celebrity, politics, mystery and just plain good writing from some literary heavyweights and solid newcomers.

Helen Fielding made a mint from and landed firmly on the best-seller lists for months with the wildly popular "Bridget Jones's Diary." Her first novel, "Cause Celeb"(Viking, 342 pages, $24.95), just released in the U.S. (no doubt to capitalize on the success of "BJD" and its sequel), is remarkably good, deserving of its own spot on those lists.

Incisive and sharp with smart prose and acerbic wit, "Cause Celeb" does a Swiftian turn on celebrity fund raising (Live Aid, Farm Aid, etc.) and what "charity" means in an era of celebrity.

In 1985, Rosie Richardson is a comely twentysomething up-and-comer in a glitzy London PR firm whose libido propels her into a fund-raising gambit and whose heart leads her to Africa where she spends several years working with an international aid organization. An impending disaster at the refugee camp she runs leads Rosie to reconnect to her former life. The results are the stuff of superb if poignant satire.

Fielding takes the reader back and forth between London and Africa, evoking both equally well. She has an innate sense of how people sound the world over; even her walk-ons are memorable. "Cause Celeb" is fun, moving and best of all, dead-on.

Martha Grimes is a stalwart mystery writer and criminalist with nearly 20 titles to her credit, her most recent starring Emma Graham. "Cold Flat Junction" (Viking, 352 pages, $24.05) returns readers to the Hotel Paradise in the now-seamy resort town. Emma is a precocious and introspective 12-year-old waitressing in the former grand hotel run by her mother and delving into its secrets in her off hours -- secrets which include a 40-year-old drowning and a series of mysterious deaths which may or may not be murder.

A master of nuance, Grimes brings every corner of Cold Flat Junction to vivid life. Emma isn't Harry Potter; she's a budding Jane Marple -- wise beyond her years in the manner of only children (though she has a brother) who have to work a little too hard and have too tenuous a hold on the safety and security that are supposed to soften childhood. Her detecting fills the void where camaraderie should be.

"Cold Flat Junction" melds classic mystery with a coming-of- age story in which the young protagonist must face the hard and often shocking realities of adulthood as she uncovers good and evil in their many guises and tries to set the past to rest. Though some may disbelieve Emma's self-assurance and intelligence as too adult, these are skills honed and refined by solitary children. Grimes gets that -- and everything else -- just right.

A superb chronicler of British life past and present, Isabel Colegate brings to "Winter Journey" (Counterpoint, 220 pages, $23) the same sharp definition of the lives of a late-middle-aged brother and sister as she did to British country life in her celebrated novel "The Shooting Party."

Not a lot happens in Colegate's novels; action is internalized, language succinct and never far from wit. ("Having traveled, Alfred now lived where he had spent his childhood.") People have names like Sainty, Barwell, Cornish. And history, personal and cultural, is the skeleton upon which the flesh of story is hung.

At the seat of their memorable childhood, Edith and Allen Ashby, he a photographer, she a former Member of Parliament, both refugees from botched love affairs, attempt to stitch the wounds of heart and mind they have incurred in their individual lives and as siblings.

With subtlety and grace, Colegate explores how these siblings separate and come together, how the often strained and tenuous bonds of family can also heal and revivify, how the approach of age inevitably demands examining the past in order to accept what remains of the future.

Jonathan Lowy begins "Elvis and Nixon" (Crown, 350 pages, $22.95) like a biblical parable -- prologue to the series of interwoven political parables that make up this debut novel. Elvis and Nixon did meet when the latter gave the former an honorary FBI narc badge (irony of ironies).

Nixon and Elvis are the larger- than-life icons of the 1970s that Lowy reconstructs and deconstructs as he does the iconic event not in the title: the Vietnam War, catalyst to the shattering of individual lives and the nation's moral center.

Lowy stands fictional characters beside historical figures, extrapolates real events and invents others. Though the language is occasionally a bit overwrought and some threads of the story a tad too ironic to weft, those who lived through this highly surreal period of American history will recognize in Lowy's quirky pastiche those days when the Vietnam War and protests at home were not just the news but the only news.

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