LAMB IN LOVE

By Carrie Brown

Algonquin. 336 pp. $21.95

Reviewed by Georgia Jones-Davis

On the night of July 20, 1969, while the world breathlessly watched as Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, another momentous event was about to unfold: Fifty-five-year-old bachelor Norris Lamb fell in love for the first time. So begins Lamb in Love, a beguiling new novel by Carrie Brown, author of the well-received Rose's Garden.

There is great tenderness in this story of the wonderful lunacy of love found late in life. Lamb wants a look at the moon, to be assured that it still appears as pristine as it was before the astronauts and all their equipment got there. Meanwhile, 42-year-old Vida Stephen feels a need to have nothing between the milky light of the moon and her skin. She strips off her nightie and dances with wild abandon beside a fountain in the garden of the house where she lives.

The vision of the bare Vida's Dionysian display sets village postmaster Lamb's heart spinning out of orbit. "Norris had seen nude women. He saw his mother in her white drawers and his grandmother in her narrow gray woolens." But he had never seen anything as beautiful as his longtime acquaintance shedding her inhibitions in the moon's glow.

Everybody knows everyone else in the village of Hursley, in rural Hampshire (which is more southwest of London than southeast, as the author has it). Swinging London, rock-and-roll and recreational drugs have not penetrated this sedate community, where a blacksmith maintains a business on the main street. Locals are still uplifted in church and look forward to things like an amateur variety show put on by their vicar, friends and neighbors. We're reminded of the rural England evoked in the novels of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym.

In fact, Lamb in Love has a definite derivative edge to it, but making the connections feels like a delightful game consciously set forth by the author. There's an obvious echo of Jane Eyre in having a spinsterly woman caring for the child of a rich, absent employer in a creepy, large manor house. A crude, sexually aggressive gardener is surely a send-up of Lady Chatterly's Lover (which Vida is reading in her book group). And the name Vida sounds a lot like Vita, as in Vita Sackville-West, another country lass of particular passions. As for Stephen, how can you not think of Virginia Woolf, nee Virginia Stephen? In any case, Vida and Vita both mean "life."

But Vida feels as if she's missed out on life, though she loves her work: tending Manford, the gentle but terribly retarded son of a wealthy American widower, Mr. Perry. She's never married, taken a real holiday or had a lover. She's refused to settle for sex on a dirty old couch leading to a dull, early marriage, like so many of her school chums. She's wanted more.

Her uncle's letters from the sunny isle of Corfu, where he makes a modest living selling paintings to tourists, fill Vida with yearning. After her secret dance in the garden, unsettling events begin to take place. She finds a bouquet on the bench she sits on each day while waiting for Manford to return from his job filling doughnuts with jam at Blevins bakery. She discovers silk lingerie on her bed. She receives two very romantic love letters, one from Corfu and one from Egypt.

Something is happening, both terrifying and wonderful. Somebody loves her. But who? Could it be the lecherous grocer? The muscular young gardener? Her employer, Mr. Perry? Meanwhile tall, gangly, bashful Norris, deeply in love, is practically walking on the moon. "He has discovered he has a gift for it, for being in love. He feels like a man who has at long last discovered his natural state."

Norris wants to "astonish" Vida into falling in love with him, but his tactics backfire when Vida suspects that she is being stalked by a suitor more warped than wonderful. What's Norris to do? Mindfully plotted, funny and sweet, Lamb in Love will leave you baying at the moon out of sheer happiness, in the mood to fall in love again.

Georgia Jones-Davis is a poet and critic living in Sherman Oaks, Calif.