HARRIET DOERR published her first novel at the age of 74. That was nine years ago. ``Stones for Ibarra,'' a collection of linked stories set in a little Mexican town, went on to win that year's American Book Award for First Fiction.
Asked what was next on her agenda (in a 1984 Monitor interview), Doerr said she was planning a book about another little town in Mexico, which she had seen from the road but never actually visited - except in her imagination. Now she has accomplished her aim in a novel that more than lives up to expectations.
``Consider This, Senora'' is set in Amapolas, a tiny village on a mesa in central Mexico. Each of its 10 titled chapters could be read on its own as a short story, yet they function as parts of a fully integrated novel.
The book opens in 1962 and covers a period of six years. Susanna Ames, an artist nearing 30, is trying to put her life together after the breakup of her marriage. She becomes involved in an unlikely business partnership with a fellow expatriate, Bud Loomis, who, like her, is drawn to Mexico, but for very different reasons.
Susanna's painterly eye is captivated by the landscape, the light, the atmosphere, and the texture of this place so far off the beaten path. Bud, who is fleeing some problems with the Internal Revenue Service, is a lot more interested in the land's potential for real-estate development. If Susanna is hoping to find herself against the background of an unfamiliar yet congenial culture, Bud is hoping, quite simply, not to be found.
Among the handful of people who purchase some of the newly developed lots are Frances Bowles, an American woman 10 years older than Susanna and the survivor of two failed marriages, and Frances's octogenarian mother, Ursula Bowles, an intelligent, self-reliant widow.
The expatriates interact with the local Mexicans: courtly Don Enrique, who sells them the land; resourceful Patricio Gomez, whose craftsmanship and tact make him an indispensable part of the development project; Patricio's beautiful young sister, and his colorful great-grandfather. Cultural differences occasion some mild bemusement on both sides, but bonds of affection and respect are also formed. The local priest wonders at these foreigners, who seem quite irreligious, yet who diligently visit churches. The North Americans wonder at the stoicism shown by the impoverished villagers in the face of their harsh daily lives.
Humor without mockery, pathos without sentimentality: Doerr's transparent prose is the perfect medium for this portrait of lives that intersect, then go their separate ways. In her three heroines - Susanna, Frances, and Ursula - she provides a kind of triptych illustrating three stages in the continuum of adult life: Susanna finds a new maturity in evaluating what is important to her; Frances learns to put aside her childish notions of romance; and Ursula tries to achieve a kind of closure, as she looks back over eight decades. Though they inhabit the same village, these three lead separate lives: Doerr's skillful juxtaposition of their stories places them in significant relation to one another.