Novel for older teens. A little romance, a lot of practicality

The Catalogue of the Universe, by Margaret Mahy. New York: Atheneum. 185 pp. $11.95. ``The Catalogue of the Universe'' is a love story. In fact, it is a tale about romantic love stories and when and where we can believe in them.

Angela May considers herself a ``child of love''; she lives with her mother and has been fed as a child on a tale about her romantic beginnings. As the novel opens, she goes in search of her father -- and finds the reality of him to be very different from what she has believed. Paralleling this plot is the story of the relationship between Angela and Tycho Potter, a short, brainy boy not her or anyone else's image of a romantic hero. As Angela sees through her own romanticism, she begins to see Tycho in a new way as well.

There is a lot to enjoy in this novel. Margaret Mahy has a knack for creating characters who are individuals, but who are still universal enough for us to recognize and to understand. Angela is a young girl half in love with her own beauty and specialness; Tycho is more at home in the world of Greek philosophers and mathematicians than he is in his own New Zealand. Both are mystified and irritated by what they see of the adult world, but they continue to try to understand it.

The relationship between Angela and her mother, a woman with the wonderful name of Dido, is vibrant, complex, and quirky. Tycho's family is equally idiosyncratic, and Mahy takes the time to let us get to know them. A lesser and ironic ``love story'' involves the tribulations of Tycho's married sister. None of these people are perfect; they blunder into and around one another, but can forgive as well. Tycho sees his love for Angela as hopeless, but he likes her anyway. Angela can, even in her anger, retain a rather practical sense of her own worth. There is little self-pity in this book, a lack I find admirable in a novel for teen-agers.

Angela and Tycho are modern 18-year-olds, and this book is about, as much as anything else, their growing attraction for each other. I like the way Mahy has done this: It is seen as an important, but not the most important, event in their developing affection for each other. It is there, however, and to my mind makes this book more suitable for older teen-agers than for younger ones.

Because Margaret Mahy is a New Zealand writer, there is a slight air of difference in the setting and the dialogue in the novel. Would an American teen-ager say ``mucking around'' when he meant not doing much of anything? Does it matter? A trip ``north to the Sounds'' is a trip to where the sun and sea are, and summer enjoyed by these people is at Christmastide. I don't think that this would disturb a reader; I think she, as I did, would puzzle it out and enjoy the process.

``The Catalogue of the Universe'' asks attention of its readers, who will have to follow, for example, the intellectual meanderings of Angela and Tycho if they want to know what is happening between them. But for those who enjoy such repartee and metaphorical reasoning, it is worthwhile and pleasant reading.

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