More signs of spring: a bouquet of ambitious first novels

A Piece of Earth, by Kenny Marotta. New York: William Morrow & Co. 251 pp. $14.95. The Upper Room, by Mary Monroe. New York: St. Martin's Press. 309 pp. $14.95. Doubting Thomas, by Robert Reeves. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 249 pp. $12.95. Jewels, by Jill Tweedie. New York: William Morrow & Co. 312 pp. $17.95 From a springtime spate of first novels:

Strong-willed Agnes Zammataro and easygoing Mike Buonfiglio are the star-crossed lovers in Kenny Marotta's comic ``Piece of Earth.'' The children of immigrant parents, they are now high school graduates with office jobs; as Agnes's mother proudly says, ``My daughter has a job in which she's paid to use just her eyes, and no spot ever comes on her clothes.''

But obstacles to their marriage lie ahead. Agnes has had the temerity to choose her mate instead of accepting one of her parents' choices, thus incurring her father's wrath. She has also refused to take in Mike's ailing grandmother. Convoluted complications ensue.

The language of this novel is a delight, its elaborate formality contrasting with the seething emotions it cloaks.

Mary Monroe's ``Upper Room'' is dominated by Mama Ruby, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, who weighs in at approximately 350 pounds and always wears a cross and a switchblade in her ample bosom. Stealing the newborn daughter of her best friend, Mama Ruby flees with her own son to a settlement of migrant camps outside Miami, where she makes friends with the likes of Zeus, Big Red, Fast Black, Yellow Jack, No Talk, and continues her stunning career of wrestling the devil for her own soul and the souls of others while ``chastizing'' (read murdering) anyone who gets in her way.

Maureen, the stolen baby whom Mama Ruby considers ``my gift from the Lord above,'' grows into a clear-eyed child who pipes up with the truth at inconvenient moments. Later, a beautiful young woman, she seeks to escape Mama Ruby's madness.

Monroe's literary canvas is painted with broad strokes, with verve and humor and passion.

Author Robert Reeves is a former Harvard teacher who likes to play the horses. His ``Doubting Thomas'' is Thomas Theron, who teaches in Cambridge, Mass., at a place named -- ahem -- Wesley College, while preferring to be at the Suffolk Downs race track. We meet him there, perversely betting on a 99-to-1 shot. The filly wins, and Thomas finds himself embroiled in a murder case, strong-armed into doing some unofficial investigating for an underworld boss with a penchant for British poet Ezra Pound.

Reeves has wonderful comic timing, and this is a very funny, very raunchy thriller, the first in a Thomas Theron series.

Jill Tweedie's ``Jewels'' is a chocolate box of a novel. Young Lady Clare, the flighty daughter of improverished artistocracy, realizes she should marry money to save the family estate.

She had a chance at the ultimate royal meal ticket, Prince Charles, but lost it ``after an incident at a May Ball, in which she was caught by some creep of a photographer stripped to her Marks and Sparks undies doing a wobbly can-can.''

Unenthusiastically, she marries a rich South American dictator and goes to live in his tiny country. There her self-absorption changes into social consciousness as she dedicates herself to improving the lot of the native women. But her husband has other plans.

Despite awkward shifts in viewpoints, Tweedie has written a page-turner, a terrific read.

Ruth Doan MacDougall, the author of eight novels, reviews first novels for the Monitor.

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