First Forays Into Novel Writing

Five writers explore small-town life, troubled families, and intergenerational relations

A BETTER PLACE By Barbara Hall; Simon & Schuster 287 pp., $21 HOUSE WORK By Kristina McGrath; Bridge Works 198 pp., $19.95 SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS By David Guterson; Harcourt Brace 345 pp., $21.95 GUPPIES FOR TEA By Marika Cobbold; St. Martin's Press 287 pp., $20.95 THIRD AND INDIANA By Steve Lopez; Viking 305 pp., $21.95

WHEN I was still young enough to be choosing books by their covers (pretty pictures and catchy titles usually caught my eye), my father let me in on the more sophisticated method of seeking out works of a particular author whose previous books I'd enjoyed. This method generally fails, of course, when it comes to first novels, which do keep coming out despite a faltering market for fiction.

The name Barbara Hall might perhaps be familiar to folks who scan the credits of television shows (she's written for ``Northern Exposure,'' ``Moonlighting,'' and ``I'll Fly Away'') or to readers acquainted with her young people's fiction. Her first adult novel, A Better Place, clearly draws on her knowledge of Hollywood and on her experience of growing up in a small town in Virginia.

The catalyst of this novel's action is Valerie Caldwell, who was the belle of every ball in the little town of Maddock where she grew up. After 14 years of trying to make it as a movie star in Los Angeles, including marriage to a semi-successful aspiring screenwriter, Valerie returns to her old stomping grounds. She's looking for a place where she can be ``special'' once more, and not just another pretty young hopeful in a sea of others just like her.

Valerie's dear old friends, Tess and Mary Grace, who once served as her admiring acolytes, are a lot less anxious to see Valerie again. The same goes for Joe Deacon, Valerie's former fiance, whom she ditched to seek out stardom. Even Valerie's own parents are less than delighted to have their little princess back home ordering them around again.

Hall tells the story of Valerie's attempt to defy Thomas Wolfe's adage, you can't go home again, from the viewpoints of her worried but open-hearted friend Tess; the still vulnerable Joe, who's married Tess; and Valerie herself. The author's insights into her characters' mixed motivations, her keen sense of humor, and her accurate portrayals of both small-town life and Los Angeles lifestyles make this a more-than-usually engaging read.

Kristina McGrath's poems and short stories have appeared in places like Harper's and the Paris Review, so if not quite a household name, neither is she a complete unknown. House Work, her first novel, is less a conventional novel than a series of intensely focused, lyrically descriptive vignettes: portraits of a working-class Pittsburgh family in the period 1945-67, seen through the eyes of mother, father, and youngest daughter.

Guy, a handsome charmer unable or unwilling to take on responsibility, fades into an alcoholic, erratic visitor. His wife, Anna, who once thought it a kind of sacred honor to look after her man, must cope with the hard realities of his shiftlessness. Louise, their youngest child, grows up in a broken home, sustained by her mother's strong faith in the power of housework - the countless acts of care and labor that go into making a home.

``The corners of sofas and floors taught compassion...; there was grace in the turns of the rocker; humility and pride in the scrub rags.... There was a certain way to do things to make life good. You took care of everything, that's what you did. And if you made a mistake, if you burnt a cake, you learned, you changed, you bent to the ways of the oven.''

The strange poetry of McGrath's novel is not only in her way with words, but in her way of seeing.

David Guterson, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and author of a story collection and a book on home schooling, would seem to have assembled the right elements for his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, about the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman set on Washington's scenic San Piedro Island in the 1950s. There's the issue of anti-Japanese bigotry, the unique beauty of the setting, and the added drama of a love triangle involving the accused man's lovely Japanese-American wife and a local reporter covering the trial.

Unfortunately, almost nothing in this novel comes alive. The leaden narrative fails to generate the suspense or the human empathy to propel the reader through an accretion of colorless details that would put even the most conscientious juror soundly to sleep. This is a pity, because somewhere in Guterson's overlong novel might have been a poignant story about the enduring, peculiarly human need to seek justice in a chaotic world.

First novelist Marika Cobbold's Guppies for Tea became a bestseller in England, where it was also short-listed for The Sunday Express Book of the Year. It's not hard to see why the British critics and public took this book to their hearts.

Amelia Lindsay, freelance writer and would-be poet, is a sweet-natured, somewhat vague young woman living with a man who now seems to resent the very qualities that once charmed him. But a problem looming much larger in her life is what to do about her beloved grandmother Selma, a kindly, cultivated Swedish lady now living in England, whose world seems to fall apart when her husband dies. Selma's callous son consigns her to a nursing home. Selma's daughter (and Amelia's mother) Dagmar is too preoccupied with her own neurotic fears to be of any help, so the task of worrying about Selma becomes Amelia's.

Her quietly heroic efforts to care for her grandmother land her in a series of touching, sometimes heart-rending, often comical situations. Of the many recent books - fiction and nonfiction - to examine the difficulties of caring for the elderly, few manage to present its trials and rewards, satisfactions and sorrows with the compassion, wit, and believability displayed here. Not merely a ``problem novel,'' this is an accomplished work of fiction, somewhat in the line of Barbara Pym - or early Angus Wilson.

The dangerous street life of the inner city is the focus of Third and Indiana, a gritty but poignant first novel by Steve Lopez, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Set in the so-called Badlands of that city, this is the story of Gabriel, a 14-year-old boy gone missing; Ofelia, his worried mother who bicycles through the crime-infested streets each night looking for her son; and Eddie, a struggling jazz musician with marital problems who becomes a sort of father surrogate to the boy. Suspenseful and frightening, with flashes of comic relief, this novel forcefully reminds us that there are real people, with aspirations, intelligence, and courage, who are trying to live their lives in a society where the odds appear to be overwhelmingly against them.

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