Spence + Lila, by Bobbie Ann Mason. New York: Harper & Row. $12.95. 176 pp.
Like its curiously punctuated title, this is a love story plus - a sweet look back at 40 years of married life, with some sly winks at society's contemporary foibles.
When Lila Culpepper is hospitalized for treatment of a potentially fatal illnes, both she and her husband, Spence, suddenly find themselves with time on their hands and memories on their minds.
As nurses flit in and out of her room, Lila reminisces about ripening blackberries and tomatoes, recalls a bus trip to the Badlands, and decides she's not about to give up the fight: ``This place ain't seen nothing yet. I'm tough as nails and rough as a cob!'' Spence, as he wanders through empty rooms at home, realizes how happy he's been on their Kentucky farm and how proud he is of the three grown children they've raised.
That's it, for action. What makes this such an enjoyable and memorable novel are author Bobbie Ann Mason's gentle insight and graceful prose.
Her Southern dialect hits the mark every time, and her images are tangy as home-grown rhubarb: a herd of Guernseys, seen from a plane, ``scatters like pieces of a breaking dish,'' and a garrulous neighbor has ``the sensitivity of a turnip.''
A fun evening, for Lila, means watching ``I Love Lucy'' in the living room, sitting beside a dishpan full of popcorn. For an even better time, try a cozy chair and this heartwarming novel. Summer Light, by Roxana Robinson. New York: Viking. $16.95. 200 pp.
Character development is at the core of this nicely paced first novel about a young woman who is forced to deal with her perceived inadequacies and to take some tentative steps in a forward direction.
In the opening pages, it's difficult to feel much sympathy for 29-year-old Laura, who, we are repeatedly told, feels ``afraid,'' ``insubstantial,'' ``worthless,'' and ``useless.'' She has gone to Maine for a much-needed vacation with her four-year-old son, her live-in lover, and her sister's family. As the coastal fog gradually lifts, conversation likewise begins to flow more freely, and Laura's tale takes a lyric turn for the better.
We've all had days when an unexpected encounter has altered the way we look at ourselves and others, and Roxana Robinson uses these familiar shifts in relationships as steppingstones for Laura's passage to self-discovery.
Some of her decisions are weighted with message - ``I must change,'' she fairly shouts to herself (just in case we don't get the point?) - but overall it's a believable evolution. Robinson is especially good at gathering everyday details to construct a multidimensional collage of a mother's affection for a young child. At Risk, by Alice Hoffman. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. $17.95. 210 pp.
This deeply moving novel about a little girl who contracts AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion comes at a time when the number of children diagnosed as having the disease is up 50 percent over last year, and it ought to attract a wide, compassionate audience. It's a tragic story, but Alice Hoffman is known for writing about the courage of the human spirit, and here she offers a characteristically resilient cast of characters.
The Farrells are a family anyone would want for neighbors. Ivan, a practical-minded astronomer, and his wife, Polly, a free-lance photographer, dote on their two pre-teen kids. Like most siblings, Charlie and Amanda treat each other with good-natured contempt:
```Thanks, beetle brain,' says Amanda. `You're welcome, dogface,' Charlie counters.'' Life in the suburban slow lane couldn't be much sweeter - until the day Amanda becomes ill and is found to have the fatal disease.
The immediate reaction is overwhelming, as friends break off contact with the family, hateful parents picket the children's school, and the Farrells one by one begin to withdraw from one another, partly out of confused rage, partly out of helpless fear. It would have been easy for Hoffman to end on that bitter note and score a shocking, temporary jolt to the reader's conscience.
But in taking the story further, in helping her characters turn the corner from estrangement to gradual reconciliation and support, she makes a far more significant statement: She offers hope against the backdrop of one of today's bleakest challenges. Although Amanda dies at novel's end, understanding has begun to dawn in the lives of those she's touched - including readers.