ONE OF THOSE CHILL NUCLEAR NOVEMBER DAYS when the sun has set too soon, a half-built nuclear power plant explodes on Long Island and this novel begins. But things aren't quite the way they sound. This is no modish disaster story, no sticky thicket of nuclear intrique. This power plant, called Angel Landing III, billows into a hazy, shifting purple cloud. It fills the sky and then settles, like an enchantment, onto the simple seaside town of Fishers Cove. Sirens go off. Lives change. Girl meets boy. This is the beginning of a good, old-fashioned love story.
Angel Landing is Alice Hoffman's third novel. The 28-year-old writer unfolds this story with the same sort of perfect, sad-funny scenes that graced her previous books, Property Of and The Drowning Season . Images from those two works turn up here -- rows of orange lilies, seashells shaped like angels' wings, men with scarred faces. But the people of Fishers Cove are different from Hoffman's past characters. They are drawn with finer lines -- with a sharp pencil perhaps, instead of spray paint. They are social workers instead of street toughs. They run boarding houses instead of beachfront estates. These are small-town people with big plans, impossible hopes, wishy-washy ideals. These are people we can understand.
When the power plant blows, Natalie Lansky is sitting in the parlor of her Aunt Minnie's boarding house waiting for her boyfriend to call. The house is mostly vacant now, but in years past it overflowed with Lanskys -- Lanskys breathing the sea air, Lanskys playing chess, Lanskys siting down to vegetarian dinners. There were blond Lanskys and brunettej Lanskys, Natalie tells us, close cousins and distant cousins, Lanskys just off the boat from Russia, young Lanskys born in this country. And they were all there because of Minnie.
Minnie Lansky is 74 now. Her husband (also a Lansky -- a distant cousin) is dead. Her relatives have moved on to other, more fashionable, vacation spots. But Minnie is not easily diminished. She still stands almost six feet tall. When she unfurls her knot of hair, it hangs to her waist. She drives a Mustang, writes her congressman, does volunteer work in an old-age home. But, most of all, she tries to bring her niece to her senses.
"Women don't sit around waiting for men to call," she tells Natalie. "Nobody does that anymore. Believe me."
Natalie is in love with Carter Sugarland, an antinuclear activist as fair and sweet as his name suggests -- and just as poisonous to Minnie's vegetarian sensibilities. Carter is as pink as peppermint, as rich and flaky as French pastry, and, for five years, Natalie has been unable to resist. For five years, she has sat by the telephone waiting for Carter's calls, waiting to be summoned for their occasional evenings of "lovemaking, marijuana and endless games of hearts."
But change is in the air as sure as the purple cloud that fills the sky that night. As Natalie and Minnie watch from the parlor windows, bits of Angel Landing III spread across the horizon like "a terrible soup."
After the explosion, Fishers Cove is abuzz. Carter leaves town to rally his antinuclear chums. Minnie sips golden seal tea and cries alone in the parlor. Natalie returns to Outreach, the counseling where she spends her days as an inept therapist. Her clients never seem to improve. The anorectic girl continues to shrivel. The high school truant is hopelessly adrift. Between clients, Natalie studies the blackberry canes outside her office window. She considers writing a letter of resignation.
And then, Michael Finn walks into Outreach and into Natalie's life.
Finn is everybody's bad boy. He smokes, and wears a leather jacket. A thin scar cuts across his cheek. What's more, he has a confession to make: he is the bomber. Michael Finn is responsible for the explosion at Angel Landing III. Almost at once, Natalie is in love. Again. And, this time, Minnie approves.
The small tragedies of Michael Finn's past, as told to Natalie -- his lost, drunken father, his reform school days, his broken promises to a child who trusted him -- make up the shining scenes of this book. They show Alice Hoffman's writing at its precise and heartbreaking best. As Finn flees West Virginia, flees marriage, a mobile home and a 6-year-old girl named Sunny who thinks he's going to be her new father, Hoffman writes:
"Later that day, when he crossed the West Virginia state line, Finn imagined that Sunny was with him; she was following him over the hills, she was floating somewhere near his left ear beating a small pair of wings that filled his head with a low whirring noise. In time, the strange noise died away, but even on the second day of his trip, Finn was still looking in his rearview mirror. All the distance in the world couldn't separate Finn from the steep West Virginia hills he had left far behind, and no matter how fast he drove his new Camaro, he couldn't outrace the incredible speed of sadness and regret."
It is difficult to believe that stories like this could really spill out of Michael Finn in the course of his therapy with Natalie. Finn has never been so articulate. Natalie has never inspired such confidence. Fortunately, Hoffman does not really expect us to believe it. She sets Finn's confessions apart, complete and dreamlike, away from the rest of the narrative. But other parts of this book are harder to swallow. There is, for instance, the coincidence of a second power plant explosion which happens to fall in the nick of time for Michael Finn. There is the sudden blossoming of Finn's mean little father and a rosy moment of reunion between the two men. And then, there is the ending -- a final fantasy scene for Natalie and Finn, a scene of stars and sweet night air and the hint of happily ever after.
But, this is a love story after all. It is a story that began with a sprinkling of purple dust from a place called Angel Landing. So maybe anything is possible. Maybe the future will bring starry nights and the scent of jasmine. Maybe bombers make better lovers. Certainly, Alice Hoffman's writing has the magic that makes us want to believe it.