Bewilderment, cliches, amnesia Novels of May


May brings variety, in nature and in novels. Garden, park, beach or bathtub: choose a place, settle in and marvel at the luxuriant new crop of spring fiction.

Don't be deceived by the jacket copy on Elizabeth Berg's sixth novel, "What We Keep" (Random House, 288 pages, $23). This book may look like bland women's magazine fiction at first glance, but it's in a different class altogether, bringing to mind such highbrow novels of girlhood as Lisa Shea's "Hula" and Susan Minot's "Monkeys."

Ginny Young is flying to California for a reunion with her mother, with whom she's had no contact in 35 years. A reverie takes Ginny back to 1958, when she was 12, during a summertime idyll in her tiny hometown of Clear Falls, Wis. The idyll was shattered after a glamorous single woman moved into the house next door, setting off a chain of events that culminated in Ginny's mother's abandonment of her family.

What led this devoted supermom to run away from Ginny and her older sister at a crucial point in their adolescence? At the time, Ginny grappled with the question with a 12-year-old girl's bewilderment, perched in that tender moment before childish innocence gives way to teen-age worldliness. Now, at 47, she's grappling with it still. Ginny's shame, anger, guilt and sorrow are presented with subtlety and suave humor in Berg's novel, which manages to be charming and painful at the same time.

Readers who enjoy the cynical wisecracking of Hollywood novelists like Bruce Wagner and Carrie Fisher will find Gwen Davis' "West of Paradise" (St. Martin's, 304 pages, $23.95) an entertaining knockoff.

Kate Donnelly is a pretty young thing who has come to Los Angeles to seek her fortune as a writer. Pretending to be the granddaughter of F. Scott Fitzgerald, she ingratiates herself on a Hollywood coterie made up of the usual assortment of rich and famous predators, all intent on destroying one another.

Among them are a fiercely closeted producer, a New Age boy-toy, a Julia Phillips-like crack-smoking pariah, a naive ex-duchess and a nymphomaniacal movie goddess.

Clumsy and cliched, Davis' novel is not going to steal any literary prizes, but it's a fast-moving diversion for a lazy day at the beach. Another Hollywood novel, Phoef Sutton's "Always Six O'Clock" (Putnam, 288 pages, $23.95), seems determined to prove that inside every television comedy writer lurks a master of suspense.

A former writer for the sunny sitcom "Cheers," Sutton offers a dark thriller of a first novel here, with a pleasurably creepy premise: a lonely 35-year-old TV writer receives a surprise visit from his long-lost high-school girlfriend, only she thinks that it's still 1978 and that they're both 17. Is she a ghost or an amnesia victim? The latter, it turns out; plus, she's caught in a dangerous love triangle with her husband and his brother.

There follow a few wild rides up and down the coast of California, and some good jokes about how disappointing the '90s look to someone stuck in 1978. What TV has taught Sutton about pacing and dialogue could fill a book - and does here, satisfyingly.

"The Student Body" by Jane Harvard (Villard, 352 pages, $23) is also a smartly paced thriller, one of several just-published mysteries set, coincidentally, at Harvard University. What's different here is the novel's offbeat authorship: "Jane Harvard" is a pseudonym for four Harvard graduates, class of '86, who have collaborated on a sexy, scandalous tale about an idealistic student reporter who uncovers a university-sanctioned prostitution ring.

Vivid, if not always entirely plausible, the novel has a large cast of multi-ethnic characters and plenty of sardonic humor. Its great strength is its ability simultaneously to celebrate and ridicule the earnest multicultural atmosphere of contemporary university life.

Caryn James, the chief television critic for the New York Times, has written a sobering first novel about the terrors and resiliency of old age. "Glorie" (Zoland Books, 229 pages, $24) tells the life of an 85-year-old widow who can't acknowledge the end of her 50-year marriage to her only love. Her money is dwindling and her son-in-law is threatening to sell her house, the last remaining relic of her husband; this is all intolerable to Glorie, who concocts an elaborate plan to avoid being relocated to a retirement community.

James' precise, almost clinical descriptions of Glorie's fight for independence as she watches her own physical, emotional and financial resources fade are bitterly poignant, inviting comparisons to Anita Brookner's best work. One scene in particular, in which Glorie is stranded alone in a blizzard, has a waking-nightmare quality that will set a premonitory chill down the spine of any reader, regardless of age.

Finally, the jewel in the crown of May novels is another first effort, this time by Kiran Desai, the 26-year-old daughter of distinguished Indian author Anita Desai. "Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard" (Atlantic Monthly Press, 209 pages, $22) is a comic fable set in a small village in India. A muddle-headed young postal worker named Sampath, unable to bear his life, runs away to the outskirts of the village and climbs a guava tree, refusing to come down.

The villagers begin to revere Sampath as a holy man, an image he helpfully reinforces by yelling down secrets about the townspeople that he has gleaned over the years by reading their mail. Busloads of pilgrims motor to the holy site with questions for Sampath, who revels in his new life of sensual splendor.

Desai's book is a festival of comic eccentricity, from Sampath and his martinet father and food-obsessed mother to the policemen, research scientists, retired army men and politicians of the town. The novel exudes charisma, poetry, and joy in language and life. It's a sparkling debut.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine edito whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Pub Date: 5/24/98

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