Oh Susanna

Robert James Waller's new novel, High Plains Tango (Shaye Areheart, $24.95), isn't nearly as much fun as his breakout 1992 bestseller, The Bridges of Madison County. Compact and straightforward, that book offered a neat, page-turning romantic fantasy. Though it follows a similar story line -- wherein a hunky drifter gets together with an alluring woman -- Tango is longer and clunkier.

The drifter is Carlisle McMillan, the son of Robert Kincaid, the hunky drifter from Bridges. Carlisle lands in Salamander, S.D., a town with just 942 people but an improbable supply of beautiful babes. Among them is the mysterious Susanna Benteen, daughter of an anthropologist who died suddenly in a Salamander rock slide.

Waller likes small towns. He laments the loss of olden times when men hewed houses from wood. Carlisle is a crack carpenter, having learned the craft from his late mentor Cody Marx. In Salamander, Carlisle decides to painstakingly rebuild an abandoned farmhouse as a tribute to Cody. Meantime, a cadre of greedy politicians and businessmen is plotting to capitalize on an unneeded highway project, which Carlisle eventually fights. (Guess who wins.)

This part of the story feels like filler, serving mainly to delay the predictable consummation scene between Carlisle and Susanna: "He bent her like the wind bends sienna wheat in a high plains summer," Waller overwrites, "and eventually came to know that loving Susanna Benteen took you as near to Truth as you can get without dying."

At his best, Waller has a breezy, stream-of-consciousness style that makes reading his prose as easy as munching potato chips. But in this more involved novel, with its tired championing of bygone days that are destined never to return, the oiliness only causes indigestion.

Off the Farm

In the first two pages of Wasted Beauty (Simon & Schuster, $24), Eric Bogosian bludgeons readers with a bleak description of farm girl-turned-fashion model Reba Cook shooting up in her dealer's filthy bathroom. She nods next to the toilet, where "junkie urine has oozed down through the bowl-sweat like streaks of yellow paint." This introduction is tough to stomach, but it's worth pressing on. Bogosian is a performer and playwright whose first novel, Mall, got strong notices in 2000. He does such a masterful job of getting inside characters' heads and capturing their dark thoughts and compulsions that his second book turns out to be a surprising pleasure.

Reba starts out as a beautiful naif, a 20-year-old orphan who lives with her rude, angry brother, Billy, on a crumbling family farm upstate. They sell apples at the Union Square farmer's market in Manhattan, which brings them into the city's harsh orbit. Billy heads into a downward spiral while Reba is discovered in a McDonald's by a powerful fashion photographer, who propels her to fame, decadence and drug addiction. She eventually begins an affair with a married doctor who's living in the suburbs, careening through a mid-life crisis.

The story is utterly implausible, but Bogosian tells it in such a sharp and entertaining way that plausibility doesn't matter. He captures not only these characters' twisted inner lives but their early 2000s milieu. The fashion world, in particular, he gets down cold. "Now I know how to hold my head high and toss my hair," Reba reflects on her modeling. "Swing my arms when I stride the catwalk, while all the old postmenopausal ladies in pearls and black stare at [me] like hungry vampires." A veteran of New York's many bohemian mondes and demimondes, Bogosian sticks to the golden write-what-you-know rule, to great effect.

They'll Always Have Paris

At age 36, Lavinia Gibbs realizes she is not in love with her fiance and breaks off the engagement. To save her upper-crust family from embarrassment, she sets out for Paris. There Lavinia finally discovers the kind of unbridled passion that has eluded her thus far. In Twilight (HarperCollins, $24.95), Katherine Mosby has written an intensely romantic middle-age bildungsroman. After a drawn-out epistolary romance with Gaston Lesseur, the roguish, shaggy-haired banker who has hired Lavinia to catalogue a late relative's property, the couple falls madly in love. In exchanging notes, Lavina and Gaston stage an elaborate courtship full of poetic double entendres. "Dear Mademoiselle Gibbs," writes Gaston, "Are you keeping warm this winter? Le Figaro talks about severe cold yet I awake with a damp brow in a room as overheated as the Congo, mistaking the radiator for the rasp of an adder." But Lavinia's charming paramour is not unencumbered. Lavinia's struggle to resolve her feelings of betrayal and longing makes this novel all the more poignant.

Mosby's style evokes the period in which the book is set: the late 1930s, as World War II is brewing. In some places her prose reads like poetry -- specific, beautiful, full of rich, carefully chosen metaphors. As Lavinia and her lover dance together for the first time in a room lit by twilight, Mosby writes, "It was her favorite time of day, and the only one that seemed at all magical. Even as a little girl she had loved its hushed descent, transforming the world into a fleeting dream of beauty and blue shadows, full with unnamed possibilities."

Hot House

The narrator of British writer Janni Visman's finely wrought novel Yellow (Viking, $22.95) is an obsessive, agoraphobic aromatherapist who never leaves her tidy flat. Instead, Stella Lewis's world comes to her. Ivan, Stella's boyfriend, arrives on the scene when he is assigned to remove the flat's gas pipes. Her clients receive treatments in the sparse, ordered treatment room: "Ylang-ylang for shock. Tangerine for emotional emptiness. Rosemary for disorientation."

Stella has lots of rules: "No stories from the past. No unnecessary anecdotes. No questions," she tells Ivan when he moves in. "Suits me fine," he replies. But Stella violates her own prescription when she asks Ivan about a bracelet he's taken to wearing, a gold-plated chain engraved by an old lover. A compulsive's worst fears come true as Stella's life starts to unravel. She falls down the stairs. Her faithful cat, George, gets locked in the neighbor's apartment. A suspicious wad of bills appears in Ivan's rucksack. Even though she has no gas pipes in her apartment anymore, Stella keeps smelling fumes. "Gas is yellow," she muses. "The color of fear. Of anger. Jealousy. Discord."

Discord indeed. Visman's taut story becomes surprisingly suspenseful even while remaining inside Stella's claustrophobic building. After she learns about Ivan's ex, Stella plays dress-up, donning a blond wig and green contact lenses. She and Ivan act out the memory of the other woman in a series of erotic scenes tinged with violence.

Visman displays a flair for precise, almost frugal, prose, making Yellow a tense, compact story that will hold readers in its unsettling grip until the final page. *

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