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Blissful, rustic, lyrical, spiritual

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Niche marketing is firmly entrenched in the publishing world, judging by the career of Suzanne Finnamore. Her 1999 comic novel, Otherwise Engaged, cataloged events leading up to a wedding, while her slim new book, The Zygote Chronicles (Grove Press, 126 pages, $22), offers a comic account of a San Francisco advertising executive who is expecting her first baby.

Like her previous effort, Finnamore's second novel will be of interest only to those who are or have been involved in similar circumstances. It's hard to imagine a childless reader being in any way gripped by the comprehensive descriptions here of heartburn, sonograms, weight gain and epidurals.

Yet those who are familiar with pregnancy's unique combination of bliss and discomfort will smile at the author's wry commentary. (Note to fetus: "I can see you're already like this very small and tight Committee and the Committee will say where we are going and where we aren't.") Despite their inevitability, the final scenes of the baby's birth nevertheless muster their share of drama and pathos.

If only the same could be said of Alex Witchel's debut novel, Me Times Three (Knopf, 304 pages, $22). Anyone familiar with Witchel's snappy reporting in the Style section of The New York Times cannot fail to be disappointed by the limpness of her fiction.

Sandra Berlin is a young assistant editor at a Manhattan glossy called Jolie! who, though she blathers ceaselessly about her own intelligence, has no idea that her longtime fiance is also engaged to two other women. When the truth dawns, she spirals into a depression that worsens when she learns that her best friend has developed AIDS. Saved in the end by the love of a good art critic, Sandra finally learns what is Truly Important in Life. Don't get me wrong -- I don't mind lengthy examinations of self-absorbed New York twenty-somethings, if they are written with pizazz. But Witchel's observations are leaden, her dialogue cliched, her pacing monotonous, and she is far more captivated by her heroine's charisma than a reader could ever hope to be.

Witchel would benefit, perhaps, from a writing seminar administered by Wendy Holden, the British author of two previous comedies whose new novel, Farm Fatale (Plume / Penguin, 352 pages, $13), is being published in America this month. Two London couples -- one rich, the other struggling -- give up their city dwellings for country homes in the quaint village of Eight Mile Bottom.

Motivated entirely by magazine trends, the trophy wife goes on a decorating rampage ("You can hardly open Vogue at the moment without reading about some Oscar-winning actress making nettle jam in a converted cow shed, free-range chickens clustered around her ankles"), while the cash-strapped illustrator loses patience with her cranky journalist boyfriend and falls for a farmer who looks "somewhat like an agricultural saint." When they're good, English authors are unparalleled in their ability to create comically self-deluded characters, and Holden is very good indeed. Every character here is deliciously ridiculous, and every rustic detail a grand satirical opportunity.

Elizabeth Berg is the author of many novels, one of which, Open House, was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 2000. This month marks the publication of Ordinary Life (Random House, 192 pages, $24.95) a collection of stories written during various periods of Berg's lengthy career. The themes in this volume echo many of her novels' mostly female preoccupations: midlife crisis, divorce, living with cancer, painful family relationships.

The best tales here use quiet humor to soften their harsh subjects. In the title story, a woman locks herself in the bathroom to reassess her marriage, fortified with Wheat Thins, a case of Orangina, and extra underwear.

Berg pays careful attention to crucial emotional turning points in the lives of her characters, chronicling these moments with subtlety and grace.

Stealing the Ambassador (Free Press, 274 pages, $23) is a remarkable first novel by Sameer Parekh about Indian immigrants in the United States. The Ambassador in the title is not a diplomat but a popular Indian car, one which Rajiv, the novel's young Indian-American protagonist, steals while on a visit to India in order to help his politically subversive grandfather.

Rajiv was raised in upstate New York listening to legends about his bridge-bombing grandparents and locked in a difficult relationship with his demanding father, an engineer anxious about losing his job. When his father dies of a heart attack, Rajiv begins to discover secrets about the culture-shocked parent he never understood and the grandparents he once glorified as heroes. Rich with insights about the experience of immigration and the bonds of family, Parekh's novel is a lyrical, heartfelt achievement.

Rich is also the best word to describe Aryeh Lev Stollman's new novel, The Illuminated Soul (Riverhead, 274 pages, $24.95). Stollman's first book, The Far Euphrates, was a splendid coming-of-age tale about the son of Holocaust survivors in the border town of Windsor, Ontario. His second novel plays with some of the same themes and introduces many more: surprising connections among countries, languages, and people; the hope of regaining lost cultures, books, and loved ones; and the Jungian arrivals of strangers in one's life who offer gifts of knowledge or kindness.

One such stranger is Eva, a beautiful refugee who rents a spare room in the home of a widow and her two young sons in the same Canadian town of Windsor, a few years after the Second World War. Eva is the daughter of a famous biblical scholar from Prague, whose most valuable possession -- a 500-year-old illuminated manuscript -- Eva managed to sneak out of Europe just before the Nazis.

Eva's glamour, wisdom and sensitivity deeply impress the two young boys, as does the magnificence of the manuscript she shows them, but she is forced to leave as abruptly as she had appeared. The Illuminated Soul is exquisitely paradoxical: at the same time simple and worldly, mundane and spiritual, emotional and intellectual, it glitters with as much finely wrought artistry as Eva's treasured manuscript.

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

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