Anguish, lit legends, slavery, talk

Five new novels

February 23, 2003|By Chris Kridler | By Chris Kridler,Special to the Sun

Amazingly, impressively, Joyce Maynard's The Usual Rules (St. Martin's, 320 pages, $24.95) explores a subject few writers would dare to touch: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The subject offered high potential for awfulness, but this is wonderful, a genuine, anguished, vibrant novel about a girl whose mother died in the collapse of the World Trade Center.

Wendy, named for the girl in Peter Pan, saw all the magic go out of her life on that terrible day. She, her stepfather and her little brother must cope like the rest of New York with the horror at their doorstep.

She also lives her teen-age life and learns how to pull fragments of joy out of a world where nothing is safe. "Once the worst had happened, a person could do anything," she thinks. In death and art and the cacti she finds when she moves to her father's home in California, the usual rules don't apply.

"In September, everything she loved -- songs on the radio and clothes and flavors of ice cream and types of dogs, leaf piles and roller coasters and skating, and Japanese animation movies and sushi and shopping and the clarinet and splashing in the waves at Nantucket with her brother -- had melted away, not gone maybe, but this was almost worse: still there, but robbed of any capacity to give pleasure, like a soup with so many ingredients that, in the end, it tastes of nothing, like what happens when you mix all the wonderful colors of paint and it turns out that together what they add up to is brown."

Maynard (At Home in the World) said she was inspired by the optimism of Anne Frank when writing this story, which teens are likely to love, too.

Maynard uses irresistible details to paint her rich characters. Her writing is smart and emotional without becoming sentimental. This is a beautiful, sad novel about love, grief and hope.

It's hard to make a comparison with Alison McGhee's well-intentioned but thin Was It Beautiful? (Crown Publishing Group, 256 pages, $23). It also is about dealing with grief, as a father tries to understand his beloved son's death, but it isn't as successful.

There should be inherent suspense in the withheld facts of the sudden death, but the novel almost has a sense of suspended animation. Its only motion comes from the slow, steady river of sadness that flows through the father, the widow and their small circle of acquaintances in a hamlet in New York's Adirondack Mountains.

McGhee's writing is spare and smooth, but so is the story, and not in a satisfying way.

The Dante Club (Random House, 384 pages, $24.95) is delightful and suspenseful, an unexpected story about Boston's literary giants tracking a post-Civil-War serial killer.

Who would have thought that Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were secretly sleuths? Happily, first-time novelist and Dante scholar Matthew Pearl can imagine them so.

He re-creates their friendships, flaws, thrills and sorrows, making them people, not just literary legends. They discover that a series of gruesome deaths are inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy, which they are translating into a controversial English edition.

Boston is as great a character as the writers, overrun as it is by destitute war veterans, struggling immigrants and religious rivals. Racial tension is evident. The police officer investigating the crimes is a war veteran and the first African-American in the job.

The forensic details will make any modern mystery lover blanch, but this novel is as erudite as it is bloody. It swings from an account of exotic maggots eating a man alive to a discussion of the finer points of Dante's artistic and political vision.

The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak.

Also set in the past is Valerie Martin's Property (Doubleday, 200 pages, $23.95), a novel told from the point of view of a planter's wife in pre-Civil War Louisiana.

Manon loathes her husband and realizes that she is, in essence, his property.

But in her suffering, she is blithely unaware of how untenable the slaves' position is. Manon is shocked when they disobey, even violently revolt.

Underneath her civilized ignorance, she almost recognizes that she and her slave-in-waiting, Sarah, are in a similar position, since Sarah is the planter's mistress. Yet Manon doesn't realize how much worse is recalcitrant Sarah's life.

From Manon's point of view, Sarah is disagreeable and hostile. By rights, Sarah should appear more sympathetic to the reader, but Martin (Mary Reilly, The Great Divorce) dares to make her unlikable. Manon, on the other hand, is courageous and strong, but she is also repugnant for her views and actions.

Martin walks a thought-provoking line with this clever, quick novel.

Anything but quick is The Hills at Home (Pantheon Books, 560 pages, $25).

Nancy Clark writes about the Hills, a scattered-to-the-winds family that comes home to New England to roost in the old homestead when its members variously lose a job, separate from a spouse, and so on.

You might call one or two of them quirky, but most of them aren't really interesting. It takes more than 300 pages for anything to happen. They talk.

They burn leaves. They interact with the wary, non-Hill townsfolk. But the family characters are not particularly compelling nor, in some cases, easy to distinguish from one another.

There are a few flashes of brilliance. Clark has a gift for glistening, textured descriptions that deserve a better plot. Occasionally, her humor shines. But she's overdrawn at the word bank.

Chris Kridler is a reporter and columnist for Florida Today. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Premiere, The Sun, The Maryland Poetry Review and other publications.

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