Women who shelter each other

From the author of 'The Red Tent,' a novel of modern friendship

Without any of the hype often deemed necessary to launch a work of fiction by a little-known author onto the bestseller lists, Anita Diamant's first novel, "The Red Tent," captured the interest of readers all over America. A journalist and author of what might be called Jewish how-to books ("The New Jewish Wedding," "How to be a Jewish Parent"), Diamant took a bold step in her first foray into fiction: She imagined her way into the consciousness of the Biblical figure Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah, and sister to the 12 brothers from whom the tribes of Israel descended.

"The Red Tent" offered a poignant, richly conceived portrait of the kind of "room of their own" that women living in the shadow of a patriarchy may have carved out for themselves.

The strength and support to be found in the bonds among women is the theme of Diamant's new novel as well. "Good Harbor" is the story of the friendship that springs up between two women who live in present-day Cape Ann, Mass.

Gentle, dignified Kathleen Levine, a children's librarian who's just celebrated her 59th birthday, has been told she has cancer. She is also beset by unresolved feelings of guilt and grief over one of her children, Danny, killed by a car while playing in the front yard 25 years ago.

Although her husband, Buddy, is everything a woman could wish for in terms of being loving and supportive, Kathleen finds she also derives a great deal of comfort from the company of a new friend: sharp-tongued, wise-cracking Joyce Tabachnik, who's just moved into town.

Joyce is the author of a romance novel (something she's at first reluctant to admit to the refined Kathleen). Although Joyce realizes that the problems she's been facing are nothing extraordinary - a husband who spends too much time at work, a rebellious teenage daughter - she inwardly feels a lot less secure and confident than her extroverted manner might suggest.

Joyce believes she is "a fundamentally timid person." The narrator writes, "She talked a brave game, but even as a teenager she had been afraid to take risks. ...The idea of hitchhiking through Europe with her roommates had been too scary."

When Joyce finally musters the courage to plunge into the unknown - in the form of a love affair with a handsome stranger - it is Kathleen who helps save her from the consequences of her folly.

Religion is also part of this novel. Joyce, a nonobservant Jew, finds herself oddly disturbed by the presence of a statue of the Virgin Mary in her garden, left there by the previous occupants of the house she's just bought. Kathleen, a Roman Catholic by upbringing, converted to Judaism years ago upon marrying Buddy Levine. By the novel's conclusion, both women have gained in their understanding of religious faith.

Yet for all its good intentions, "Good Harbor" is not a very good novel. The tempo is awkward: a slow start, uneven pacing throughout, and an ending that feels rushed. The writing is undistinguished, even occasionally ungrammatical, e.g. "Waiting for the elevator, someone grabbed her elbow from behind." And, while there is nothing wrong with Diamant's wanting to give us, especially in the character of Joyce, a heroine who is down to earth, a disconcerting crass- ness sometimes creeps into her dialogue:

"Oh, dear," Kathleen said, her eyes filling with tears, "I think Hal must feel guilty."

"I was wondering when you'd finally spring a leak," Joyce said, handing her a tissue.

From the writer who gave us "The Red Tent," this is something of a disappointment, not only in style, but in imaginative substance.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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