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From a tragedy in a summer lodge to a marriage that unravels in Nigeria, five armchair escapes. By Susan Adams

By Susan Adams
Sunday, August 15, 2004; Page BW06

A Last Resort

Osprey Island, by Thisbe Nissen (Knopf, $24), is the quintessential summer novel, set in a Northeast vacation destination reachable only by ferry and peopled by a small community of year-rounders who wrestle with the ever-present island demons of alcohol and resentment. In the summer of 1988, the Lodge on Osprey is getting ready to open, with a new crop of Irish girls set to assume housekeeping duties and eager to explore summer relationships with the American college boys who make up the wait staff.

Enter Suzy Chizek, rebellious returning daughter of the Lodge's owners, and Roddy Jacobs, also back on Osprey after his mysterious disappearance during the Vietnam War. Suzy and Roddy soon realize that their oldhigh school pals Lorna and Lance, who both work at the Lodge, are drinking themselves into oblivion while neglecting their 8-year-old son, Squee.

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Tragedy strikes soon enough, drawing Suzy and Roddy together. Meantime various staffers, including busty, rebellious Brigid and confused, handsome Stanford boy Gavin, are pulled into the island's dark problems.

Nissen handles a complicated plot with skill and paints an especially poignant picture of what it means to go home again. As the tension becomes too much for Suzy to bear, she grabs her 6-year-old daughter and flees the Lodge in a pickup. "It felt good to drive," writes Nissen, "to move that fast, the whipping of the wind, the adrenaline of speed. . . . And what struck her was the dreadful familiarity of that sensation. It was high school. It was dying for flight, anything just to drive and keep driving." By the end of the book, some of Osprey's most painful wounds are lanced, and, in the process, a modicum of justice is done. It's eye-opening for the summer workers at the Lodge, revealing for the islanders and a treat for the reader.

Hollywood Help

The cover of The Assistants by Robin Lynn Williams (Regan, $24.95) looks like a pitch for a new gorgeous-actor drama on Fox, with photos of the book's five young, beautiful characters. Even Williams's author shot contributes to the effect: She sports perfect features, luscious locks and a smile straight from the cosmetic dentist's chair. So it's tough in the opening pages to avoid the suspicion that this is pure trash. Far from it, however. Brett Easton Ellis blurbed this book with the observation that it's "depressing in a good way." But it's not so much depressing as knowing. Williams even manages to craft an uplifting ending for her gimlet-eyed Hollywood saga.

The conceit is that each of the five beauties works as an assistant to a ridiculously demanding, egomaniacal Hollywood personality. Michaela, Rachel and Kecia are at the beck and call of actors, while Griffin and Jeb work for agents. Each chapters is written in one of the five characters' voices, and Williams pulls this off skillfully. Kecia is the sassy African American, Jeb the testosterone-charged young buck, Griffin the driven, would-be mogul who pretends to be gay so he can break into Hollywood's homosexual cabal. Michaela is the spoiled, conceited Jewess who's had too much plastic surgery and is trying mightily to sleep her way into an acting job. Rachel, the book's heroine, is a Forrest Gump-like idiot savant from Sugarbush, Tex. Her perpetual naiveté produces some of the funniest lines. Of telemarketers she says, "I feel sorry that they were singled out for such harsh punishment by the federal government, when all they are trying to do is put food on the table for their loved ones."

Domestic Chaos Theory

Daisy Andalusia, the narrator of Alice Mattison's The Wedding of the Two-Headed Woman (Morrow, $23.95), has an unusual job, organizing other people's clutter. Meanwhile Daisy is busy creating disorder in her own life. At fifty-something, she has recently married longtime on-and-off lover Pekko Roberts, with whom she has good sex, occasionally satisfying conversation and a semblance of stability. But Daisy is restless and refreshingly unabashed about her previous sexual adventures. She muses, "In the long years of my single life, I'd sometimes seduced a man with a touch, perhaps to his hair or his wrist. Once I did it by unbuttoning a man's cuff as he sat next to me. But most often I simply asked, and either he'd been wondering or the question itself was enough to evoke desire and will." So it's no surprise when Daisy gets sexually involved with client Gordon Skeetling, a matter-of-fact Yale researcher who studies small cities. The contrasts between Gordon and Pekko are stark. While Pekko, a New Haven landlord with a somewhat elusive past, is an ethical pragmatist of few words who would rather leave his city's secrets untold, Gordon is an academic with no fantasy life who likes to expose things.

Gordon shows Daisy his collection of amusing newspaper headlines, one of which becomes the subject of a play she works on with a local theater troupe -- and the title of this quirky, original novel. Mattison's voice is intelligent, spare and without pretense. She lays out Daisy's story in a way that makes it seem as if not much is happening, while quietly weaving in four or five intriguing subplots, including a murder mystery, a rent strike and, toward the end, Sept. 11. All these stories press in on Daisy in some meaningful way, each playing a role in her quest to come to terms with herself.

Family Myths and Misunderstandings

Mary Helen Stefaniak's debut novel, The Turk and My Mother (Norton, $24.95), is a complicated, multi-generational tale about immigrants from, as one family member puts it, "a part of Europe that was so used to being cut up and handed around like cake at the end of every big and little war that my mother could tell you who was king when she was a girl but not what he was king of." That part of Europe, now known as Croatia, produced the elders in Stefaniak's story, the most colorful of whom is called Staramajka, which is Croatian for grandmother. Staramajka's daughter-in-law Agnes is the mother of the title. Agnes, who has emigrated from a tiny village, may or may not have had an affair with a Turk, who may have been a Serbian.

Confused? Unfortunately, such is the effect of Stefaniak's sometimes charming but too often convoluted narrative. It's often tough to fathom who the storyteller is, which generation he or she belongs to, and even in what country the story is set. The opening piece about the Turk is a case in point. It seems that the author's father is recounting a saga about his own mother, but that's never made entirely clear.

Once Stefaniak launches into a story, like the one about missing Uncle Marko, who spent 16 years in Siberia during World War I, she can spin a great yarn. There's another touching subplot about Staramajka when she was a little girl, and her almost-romance with a blind gypsy boy.

Toward the end of the book, Stefaniak manages to pull some of the many threads together into a coherent, moving whole. It's too bad she didn't sacrifice her story's scope early on, in favor of more clarity.

A Woman at Sea

Struggling to cope with the sudden death of her father in Nigeria, Anne Harrington, the protagonist of Jane Rogers's The Voyage Home (Overlook, $24.95), takes an ill-advised journey from Africa back to England on a container ship. Paralyzed by grief and ambivalence, Anne gets sucked into an awful drama involving a stowaway, his ailing pregnant wife and the ship's conniving, seductive first mate.

During the journey Anne starts to read her father's diary, which becomes a vivid subplot to her larger story: In the early 1960s, her father, a Christian missionary, had moved to rural Nigeria with her mother. In reading the diary, Anne learns for the first time why her parents split up when she was a toddler, and why her mother moved back to England and her father lost his post. Rogers skillfully creates two distinct voices. Anne's father is confident, bullying, righteous, though ultimately anguished when he confronts the consequences of his bad behavior. Anne is much less sure of herself, caught between inertia and indecision.

Back in England she breaks down. But then, spurred by a new relationship, she starts to grapple with her internal conflicts and limitations. "She could criticise herself for having taken this long but what's the point? This is how long it takes. Every decision she's ever made. . . . It's not to do with will, it's about gathering necessity, a movement slow as the growth of plants, as the ageing of her face, something which can only become apparent over time, over a long time of infinitesimal but continual transition." In evocative prose, Rogers paints a complicated, psychologically insightful picture of a damaged woman's effort to move on with her life. •

Susan Adams is an editor at Forbes magazine in New York City.


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