Ah, the vast perspectives of Mexico! Human beings can't help looking puny in such timeless terrain. Toward the end of "Consider This, Senora," a local musician plays for the residents of an isolated little village. Accordingly, the shabby old plaza is "washed in silver by music. The cobblestones, the house fronts, the trees, the people, and their animals shone with it. The sound Aparicio drew from his trumpet was as pure as air never breathed, as transparent as ice."
People. Animals. Sun-baked tiles and icy-clear narrative. Welcome to Harriet Doerr's Mexico, land of long, tranquil silences punctuated by the occasional traffic fatality. It's a land in which people and vegetation struggle through record-length droughts, and twisty little roads lead American motorists to a dead end in some lonely cornfield.
In 1984, Ms. Doerr made a stir in literary circles when, at the age of 73, she published her first novel, "Stones for Ibarra." Critics called it a poet's novel. Set in Mexican mining country, it was likened to the fiction of Katherine Anne Porter. There were complaints, too, about the lack of conventional character development, the strange emotional distancing -- both among the characters and between narrator and reader -- and about the stylized dialogue (which, it was conceded, followed formal Spanish-American speech patterns). Nevertheless, Ms. Doerr won the American Book Award.
"Consider This, Senora" shares Ms. Doerr's strengths and shortcomings. It tells how, in 1962, four U.S. expatriates start their own suburban enclave on the site of a once-grand estate that overlooks the village of Amapolas ("poppies"). Hence Poppy Heights, a real-estate development run by middle-aged tax defaulter Bud Loomis, who has fled the IRS to seek more lucrative hunting grounds south of the border.
Loomis impulsively chooses for his business partner wealthy young San Francisco divorcee Susanna Ames. (The Mexicans pronounce her name "Susahnahahmes," the same way E. M. Forster's Muslims turned the name of elderly Mrs. Moore into the mantra-like chant -- "Esmiss Esmoor" -- in "Passage to India.") Like the benign Mrs. Moore, Susanna Ames radiates "an air of absent-minded integrity" that wins the trust of Don Enrique, the former owner of Poppy Heights and the most important man in Amapolas.
Sue and Bud get to work on their subdivided new property. Sue, an amateur artist, first sketches and then brings into actuality the simple beauty of Hispanic gardens, patios and domestic interiors. Bud lays water, sewage and electrical lines, and gets involved with Sue's beautiful teen-age maid, Altagracia Gomez.
After a while, 40ish Frances Bowles and her mother, "the widow Bowles," move into Poppy Heights. Frances is pursuing an elegant young heart-breaker named Paco. The widow has returned to the land of her birth to die of an unnamed family malady. Finally, an elderly German pianist and his sister move in. Herr Otto plays a single, unvarying note on his piano day after day.
More time passes. A handsome stranger arrives to court Sue. Then an IRS agent approaches Bud. But these are only flirtations. The Anglos of Poppy Heights take a kindly interest in the villagers' problems, but their (mainly) inherited wealth insulates them from significant trouble.
Similarly, Ms. Doerr's emotional detachment and gentle prose style render both sex and death gossamer-light as the characters gently descend from their dreamy, six-year sojourn on Poppy Heights. "The Magic Mountain" it isn't. But if a pleasant, extended holiday in a not-quite-real Mexico intrigues you, "Consider This, Senora" is your ticket.
Ms. Wynn is a writer who lives in Somerville, Mass.
Title: "Consider This, Senora"
Author: Harriet Doerr
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Co.
Length, price: 241 pages, $21.95