The ending is told at the beginning. When Sara and Richard Everton are introduced to us on the first page, we learn that ''Richard Everton, a blue-eyed black-haired stubborn man . . . will die thirty years sooner than he now imagines.''
The Evertons are ''just over and just under forty,'' and they are embarking on a wild venture, leaving the security of their San Francisco life to move to Ibarra, Mexico, ''a declining village of one thousand souls,'' where they intend to reopen the copper mine Richard's grandfather abandoned half a century ago and to reoccupy the family house left empty all those years. They want to ''extend the family's Mexican history and patch the present onto the past . . . To weave chance and hope into a fabric that would clothe them as long as they lived.'' But when they arrive and discover how much the mine and house have decayed, Sara voices her unspoken qualms: ''I wonder if we have gone out of our minds.''
Yet they proceed with their plans, and it is when the mine is working again, employing villagers, and the house is being restored, employing other villagers, that what was revealed to us at the outset is told to them in more detail by a doctor. Richard has a blood disease and can expect to live only six years.
These six years are the novel's framework. Instead of eliminating suspense, the knowledge of death heightens it with terrible poignancy, for we join Sara in hoping that death can be foiled. Sara is living in a village in which, ''Believing as they did in a relentless providence, the people of Ibarra, daily and without surprise, met their individual dooms. They accepted as inevitable the hail on the ripe corn, the vultures at the heart of the starved cow, the stillborn child.'' But she fights such fatalism, inventing fantasies and pretending that Richard will recover. The conflict between the two attitudes is exquisitely encapsuled during the Spanish lessons Sara takes from a nun who is as determined to forget her past as Sara is to alter the reality of her future.
Into this framework of Sara and Richard's tale are fitted the tales of the villagers, told so vividly that at moments the novel begins to seem almost a collection of short stories. They range from tragedy, such as the accidental shooting of one brother by another, to the affectionately comic descriptions of the eccentricities of the village's assistant priests. But although the villagers stand apart from the Evertons, spying on them, eavesdropping, endlessly discussing these two peculiar Americans, they are also linked to them, and at the close all the tales blend into the sadness of Richard's death.
Intelligent, honest, the book never becomes sentimental. The writing as shaded with nuance and as shining with clarity as the Ibarra landscape. Its author, Harriet Doerr, is 73 years old and lives in California. Her first novel is a masterpiece.