First dates are anxious at any age

Norris Lamb discovers that he has 'a gift for being in love.'

LAMB IN LOVE By Carrie Brown Algonquin Books 336 pp., $19.95

There are novels for summer reading on the beach. There are novels for winter evenings by the fire. And so why shouldn't there be novels to welcome the spring? Carrie Brown's "Lamb in Love" is as delightful as crocuses erupting through dirty snow.

This gentle, witty story about two middle-aged people falling in love for the first time reads like something Anita Brookner would write, if she would just cheer up. Brown demonstrates a kind of rare courage for a serious novelist: a willingness to let things work out well.

The night Neil Armstrong makes his giant step for mankind, Norris Lamb is taking a big step of his own. On a nightly walk, he spots Vida, a woman "almost old enough to be considered a spinster," dancing around a long-dormant fountain in the moonlight. While the rest of the world gazes at the sky, Norris is struck by a more cosmic vision.

"This love for Vida has swept over Norris, overtaken him after a lifetime of crisscrossing the same streets as she, going in and out the same doors, conducting their business over the same counters. Oh, Norris knows how silly it looks, how they'd laugh, all his neighbors, if they knew. He knows he is a victim of a delicious assault, a caress from a lion's paw."

As postmaster for a little English village, Norris is a man of extraordinarily small experience in love. Long detained in the care of his old relatives, he's had little time to think about romance at all, except for a few chaste fantasies about the women he sees on postage stamps.

Empowered by this new elixir, convinced that "he has everything to risk, and everything to gain," Norris begins timidly courting Vida with a series of anonymous gifts dropped in her path and love notes mailed from exotic locals around the world. "He hopes to astonish her with how wonderful it is to be alive," but Vida worries that a maniac is stalking her.

Stumped by the challenge of making his feelings known, Norris considers songs, lingerie, and skywriting, but finally settles on a series of hysterically nervous conversations with Vida at the post office. (He's covered with so many bits of tissue paper from cutting himself shaving that he looks like a piata.)

The comedy of these strange people never subjects them to ridicule. Brown's deft portrayal of Vida and her care for a mentally handicapped young man is so sweet and affecting that we can't help but fall in love with her, too.

This is a novelist who understands that the forest is in the leaf. Brown takes such care with these simple people's hopes and fears that before we know it, their luminary love seems as wondrous as anything else on earth, or beyond.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

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