A WAY FROM HOME

By Nancy Clark

Pantheon. 352 pp. $25

Nancy Clark wrote a brilliant domestic comedy called The Hills at Home in 2003. Packed with a lifetime's worth of incisive observation of the manners of a self-satisfied New England family, it was too long at almost 500 pages, yet I relished every one. The sequel, A Way From Home, is just over 350 pages, but I resented half of them. In the first book, about houseguests who won't leave, little happened; the thrill was watching this static plot balance precariously on the point of Clark's wit, like those enormous boulders in the Utah desert. But in A Way from Home, something has shifted, and the result is a crushing bore.

The scene opens on three of the family members from the first book: Alden and Becky Lowe and their precocious daughter, Julie, have moved to a castle in Prague in the early 1990s. Alden is the director of an organization charged with enticing Western investors to the fertile, though fallow, Czech economy while preparing groggy ex-communists for the wonders of American capitalism. His wife stays busy affecting just the right expressions of humble superiority -- not complaining, for instance, about their surly, alcoholic driver, who'd "only recently ceased being an oppressed person." She devotes herself to encouraging female Czech entrepreneurs to package their homespun concoctions for fancy department stores abroad. Warning them about the challenges of their future bounty, she explains "what liberal guilt was and how inconvenient it could be." While Alden and Becky are thoroughly engaged with their work, though not with each other, their "disco-punk retro-mod hippie-chick" daughter is trying to seduce one of her father's employees.

This is rich material, a chance to poke fun at East and West in a sequel that's as self-consciously international as the first one was provincial. The Lowes "had stood on their heads in order not to come across as conquerors, for they felt like conquerors." Alden views his Czech employees as "exceptionally pleasant children" who need to be enlightened about the wonders of the invisible hand that lifts all boats. The Czechs, meanwhile, regard the cheerful Lowes, with their miraculous teeth and their luxurious fabrics, as innocents whose delicate feelings they must protect from the ravages of real life. They're willing to play their part in the Americans' drama of benevolence, like "urchins in World War II movies."

Clark has perfected a kind of mocking embrace -- tenderness mixed with a faint smirk. If you had to be brutally satirized, she'd be your first choice to do the honors. Her narrative eye catches the slightest affectations of pride that float through the minds of these people, rich or poor. As the Czech servants gaze upon the Lowes' opulence with a mixture of awe and revulsion, Clark somehow manages to prick everyone involved. But the narration has an aimless quality, a tendency to run through the same witty gestures and observations again and again, making very weak tea indeed.

Nothing much happens in this Prague section of the novel, but what does happen seems wildly engaging compared to what doesn't happen in the Libya section that follows. Deeply, though secretly, unhappy with Alden's passive, ironic personality, Becky abandons her family and goes to live with an old friend who's been patiently waiting for her for 20 years, like some crossbreed of Jay Gatsby and Miss Havisham. Besides the fact that the man is a wealthy American illegally working for Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi, we don't ever learn much about him, or why Becky is attracted to him. His devotion -- saving up all the wrapped gifts he would have given her over the years -- seems more creepy than romantic. But what's most troubling is the arid tone of this long section. Clark's wit evaporates in the desert, and she conveys the slow passage of these languid days in what seems like real time. At one point, even Becky grows tired of their life and begins to read a dull story -- reproduced for us here -- about people who once lived on her paramour's land.

A short final chapter back in Prague provides some relief but none of the resolution we deserve after our travail in the desert. Becky's story fades away completely, and Alden wanders off, a wreck. The author is reportedly at work on a third and final installment, but she's left us a long way from home, and many of her fans may not make it back. *

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

Nancy Clark