Hard Laughter

Rachel Sparks's mother is dying of breast cancer, and Rachel, a poet and part-time college instructor in her thirties, moves into her apartment to take care of her. Lest you think this is pure sacrifice on her part, Rachel, smart as hell and just as honest, will tell you the truth: "I was over thirty years old, living with my mother because she was sick and because I was poor. It was an exchange. It was love, yes, but need was a part of it too. I wanted to pretend I was still an adult, that returning to my mother wasn't an indication I'd gone backwards: thumb sucking, dependency, crawling, fear, and breast milk." But it doesn't matter what she pretends; she is afraid. If this set-up makes Lisa Glatt's A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That (Simon & Schuster, $22) sound lachrymose, it's not. Sad, yes, but also comic, even bawdy. Rachel's brief entanglements with inappropriate men -- among others, "Dirk or Derrick or Dick," whose sole passion in life is collecting vintage toasters -- have worn her down until she feels almost accidental, a "comma" in her life instead of its subject. But Rachel isn't defeated; she's fierce and funny. She might simply be indulging in graveyard humor when she sits in a bar with friends, cracking jokes, but the jokes made me laugh all the same.

The novel flags when Glatt interrupts Rachel's story with chapters about other women she meets in passing. These chapters feel intrusive and unnecessary, but that cannot erase the vitality of this book, or of Rachel, who, far from being a comma, is a true -- if prickly -- heroine of her own story.

Beijing and Nothingness

A Private Life, by Ran Chen, translated from the Chinese by John Howard-Gibbon (Columbia Univ., $24.50), is indeed about a very private life: The narrator, Ni Niuniu, almost never leaves her Beijing apartment. Instead, she takes baths, waters her plants and mulls over the sorrows that drove her into retreat: an affair with a brutal male teacher, the deaths of both her mother and her lesbian lover, and a boyfriend forced into exile after the events of Tiananmen Square. Despite the mention of this event, A Private Life is not an overtly political book; rather, it has the timeless quality of most dreams. Still, Ni Niuniu's refusal to connect with the world outside her door becomes a kind of political statement. As she says, "I am a fragment in a fragmented age."

We also see that age in fragments: in the radio broadcasts of her childhood exhorting listeners to "Counterattack the Trend to Exonerate Rightists"; in her childhood pet, a dog named Sophia Loren (even though he is male), who seems to express the family's disgust with such announcements by urinating on the radio; in her nanny, who is forced to leave the family as the modernizing country discards its once-valued old people; and, of course, in her student leader-lover, forced to leave her before their affair truly begins. But maybe most of all we see it in her inability to control events. She gives into her teacher's desire, for instance, even though she hates him. Why? Simply, as far as we can tell, because he is powerful, and he wants her. Ni Niuniu's withdrawal becomes a kind of passive resistance, a way of becoming whole. Perhaps the state thinks she is going mad -- she cites an official medical report to prove it -- but by the end of the book, the reader thinks she might just be going sane.

Poe Substitutes

In the year 1845, Edgar Allen Poe wrote "The Raven" and fell in love with the now forgotten poet Frances Sargent Osgood. Poe & Fanny (Algonquin, $24.95) is a novel about that time in Poe's life. It is well researched and full of minutiae from 1840s New York -- magazine wars and the powerful writers and editors of the time, as well as women's clothing and the decor of fine hotels. But Poe & Fanny, with its clunky language, flabby pacing and lifeless characters, is not much of a novel. Poe -- surely one of the weirdest, wildest personalities of American literature -- comes off as depressive, whiny, ordinary. Maybe he was despondent and complaining, but it's hard to accept that he was ever ordinary.One would think that a novel about the man who wrote The Tell-Tale Heart would evoke a bit of urgency and danger. Instead, the best adjective to describe this book is "nice." Poe's friend N.P. Willis, a writer and editor, is nice. Poe's inamorata, Fanny, is nice. His wife -- the tubercular cousin he married when she was 13 -- is nice. Even his mother-in-law is nice.

A snippet of conversation between the illicit lovers illustrates the pedestrian nature of this book -- what else? -- nicely: " 'Tell me you love me, Edgar,' and she peered into his eyes. 'I need to hear you say it.' He looked down at their clasped hands. 'I love you, Fanny,' he said, but he could not bear her gaze just then. He wanted to tell her how much, and how much he needed her, too, but it was so hard to say."

It never gets any better than that. Poe had a gothic sensibility, brilliant analytical skills, a great ear for language. If only Poe & Fanny had the same.

Small-Town Gothic

The setting of Mindy Friddle's first novel, The Garden Angel (St. Martin's, $23.95), is an old-fashioned Southern town full of dilapidated mansions, chatty eccentrics and farmers who hawk their own honey. But modernity is encroaching, no matter what the narrator, Cutter Johanson, tries to do to stop it. Her brother and sister want to sell the family home -- one of those dilapidated mansions -- to developers. Cutter is determined to stay put. But even while she is working two jobs -- waiting tables at the Pancake Palace and writing obits for the local paper -- trying to scrape up the cash to buy the place, her sister, Ginnie, is dallying with a married college professor. To add to the sensation of worlds colliding, Cutter has managed to befriend the college professor's betrayed wife, without Ginnie finding out -- yet.

Friddle sometimes seems a little bit too infatuated with Cutter, at 25 a plucky, eccentric old-lady-in-training who never seems to have a moment's doubt. To Friddle's credit, she sees the humanity in the other characters as well, portraying the professor as more than a stereotypical heartless Lothario and Ginnie not just as a helpless victim of sexual harassment. Perhaps Friddle's triumph is the long-suffering wife, Elizabeth, an agoraphobe working on an endless dissertation. The reader feels for her, without necessarily wanting to live with her.

Friddle also has a way with the comic yet apt image: "I knew I had to stuff my feelings back down deep inside or they might pop out all at once, sticky and soft, like canned biscuits." It's lines like these that represent Friddle at her best: funny, down-to-earth and steeped in a sense of place.

Uneasy Correspondence

You could say that Esther Freud's family business is human nature. Great-granddaughter of Sigmund and daughter of the artist Lucian, she has the same talent for burrowing under people's skins, understanding their motivations and evoking the physical world, which she most most certainly does in her most recent book, The Sea House (Ecco, $24.95). Freud describes the setting, the small English seaside village of Steerborough, so vividly that one can almost taste salt on the tongue.

Klaus and Elsa Lehmann, a German Jewish architect and his wife, are drawn to Steerborough in the years during and after World War II. Their love story, and the secret at the heart of that story, is the center of the book. Part of the story is told through the eyes of Max Meyer, a fellow refugee and amateur artist who comes to the village to paint and to escape the isolation engendered by his own deafness and the deaths of his family in and after the war.

He falls madly in love with Elsa. Another part is told through a series of letters from Klaus to Elsa, which depict the toll that years of exile and forced separations can take on a marriage. Fifty years later, Lily, a graduate student, comes to the village to work on her dissertation about Lehmann and reads the letters. Their passion and seriousness drive home to Lily what she already senses. She, too, is in a kind of exile, though not so much physical as emotional. Her contemporary London life and her relationship with her go-getting, ambitious boyfriend, Nick, give her little sustenance.

Nick is the weak link in The Sea House. In a book full of subtle and rounded characters, his thoughtlessness and hipness teeter close to caricature, and his reformation at the end feels a little unbelievable.

But this does not cancel out the beauties of this book. The Sea House is a sensuous and intelligent novel about love and the traces it leaves, and how certain places have the power to transform. *

Elizabeth Gold is the author of a memoir, "Brief Intervals of Horrible Sanity."