Sebastian Faulks, at top of his form


On Green Dolphin Street, by Sebastian Faulks. Random House. 351 pages. $24.95.

Let's get one thing straight right off the top: Sebastian Faulks writes charged, involving novels and his latest, On Green Dolphin Street, is no exception to the rule. Following two acclaimed best sellers -- Birdsong and Charlotte Gray -- this one is a smart, well-wrought construction, a tenderly orchestrated love story set against the commotion of a feverish year.

Kennedy and Nixon are squaring off in the presidential campaign. Miles Davis is being spun on record players. Artsy marijuana parties are cropping up in the apartments of Greenwich Village. And a woman named Mary van der Linden is bearing witness to the slow dissolve of the familiar and true, the certainties she's held within her heart.

British-born and graceful, in her 40th year but not looking the part, Mary is the wife of a troubled diplomat who drinks more than he should; the mother of two small children who have been packed off for boarding school; and the daughter of a woman in the unexpected throes of cancer. Still, if Mary is not precisely happy when the story opens, she is a woman who can at least say about her life, "who in these circumstances could not at least be touched from time to time by the ridiculous joy of existing?"

She loves her husband and worries after him. She loves her children, feels their absence. She is a gracious hostess, well-respected and well-liked among the coterie of Washington, D.C., bureaucrats and their wives.

But it is Mary's ability to make others happy that brings a desperate dilemma to the year, her subtle attractions that provoke a New York City newspaper reporter named Frank Renzo to fall headlong in love with the diplomat's wife and to force a rather abrupt entry to her life. She falls in love, too -- with Frank's charms and with his city, with the possibility that life is greater, sweeter, finally more dense than her restrained if pleasant living has become.

Most notable, perhaps, for its exquisite period details -- for the way it re-creates the Kennedy-Nixon campaigns or conjures up D.C. affairs or stokes the sound and sensibility of a New York City poised at the start of a new era (the traffic! the storefronts! the jazz bars! the beat!) -- On Green Dolphin Street does everything an old-fashioned novel is supposed to do. It makes readers care about its characters and see the world they live in. It cuts back and forth in time and also perspective, until it has achieved a certain momentum. It puts blundering humanity directly at its center and never blinks or wavers.

For those who need plot, there's plenty to spare -- devastating flashbacks to an emotionally crippling war, shadowy coincidences, diplomatic savagery, a heart-quickening series of cinematic scenes toward the end that make guessing the final outcome outright impossible.

For those who like to sink, every now and then, into unapologetic romance, it opens its arms and accommodates.

For those, finally, who can bear to weigh life's confounding questions -- What is love, and what is marriage? What is faith, and what is trust? What does loyalty require? What is kindness and what is moral and what finally transcends morality? -- it will provoke and linger.

Beth Kephart's first book, A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage, was a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her second memoir, Into The Tangle of Friendship, earned a 2000 National Endowment of the Arts grant. Her third book, Still Love in Strange Places, will be published by W.W. Norton in April. Her essays, articles and reviews appear nationwide.

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