On the Beach

Dannie Faber and her husband have an unusual arrangement. A 53-year-old children's book illustrator who likes to work in good light, she prefers their beach house in Truro on Cape Cod. Thomas Faber, an anthropology professor at MIT, needs to be near campus, so he spends most of his time at the couple's house in the Boston suburb of Watertown. As Dannie explains in Anne Bernays's intelligent, page-turning new novel, Trophy House (Simon & Schuster, $24), "All and all it works out okay and we have, over the years, trusted each other not to mess with other people."

That's about to change. First, Dannie's best friend, Raymie, takes up with the obnoxious rich guy who has just built an ostentatious trophy house down the beach from the Fabers. Raymie's rash act spurs Dannie to explore her nascent attraction to a New York editor she's talked to on the phone for years but never met. At the same time, Dannie and Tom's daughter drops in and out of her parents' lives as she struggles to find herself.

Bernays, author of seven previous novels and a book of short stories, as well as some works of nonfiction, here weaves several newsy threads through her intriguing plot. It's the summer of 2002, and the emotional fallout from Sept. 11 hangs in the air. There's also a shocking, unsolved murder in Truro and an eco-terrorist on the loose who spatters the trophy house with paint the color of blood.

But Bernays's book is really about the unraveling of a marriage, and she tells that story with wit and sensitivity. Though Trophy House is undemanding enough to make a dandy beach read, its main character's emotional struggles and confusions are by no means simple-minded. This is one of those books that goes down easy but offers plenty to think about.

Sobering Reflections

Racial identity, a lost parent and substance abuse are all issues for Abel Crofton, the narrator of Heather Neff's skillfully written, emotionally gripping Haarlem (Harlem Moon/Broadway; paperback, $12.95). A 45-year-old recovering alcoholic whose abusive jazz musician father has just drunk himself to death, Abel sets out for Holland in search of the Dutch mother he never knew.

In Amsterdam, Abel must deal with a raft of unexpected feelings and discoveries, all the while battling "the Thirst." Though he's 12 years sober, his cravings are still powerful. In a cafe next to his hotel, he finds himself drawn to Sophie, a recovering addict of Dutch-Caribbean descent who winds up helping him find his mother and uncover a family secret that is both shocking and, in the end, inspiring.

When Neff is writing about Abel and his community back in Harlem, her voice is assured, with a perfect ear for dialogue and Abel's inner voice. "My hands began to tremble at the thought of a whiskey sour at thirty-three thousand feet," Abel says to himself on the plane to Amsterdam. "Lick. Er. Sweat slicked my forehead and my finger inched toward the little orange silhouette of a woman on the armrest."

But Sophie and her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Elias, come across as wooden and preachy. "People who begin using at a very early age never experience normal emotional development," drones Elias. "They have a great deal of trouble taking on adult responsibilities and forming permanent relationships."

Nevertheless, the novel reaches an emotional climax guaranteed to induce tears. Suffice it to say that Abel finds what he's looking for, and more. Neff has written an ambitious novel that even evokes the biblical tales of Cain and Abel and the prodigal son. Despite the flaws, she succeeds beautifully.

Bear Hugs

Novels that give nonverbal characters such as dogs, babies or stuffed animals a voice can be irritating -- like those awful John Travolta movies where the babies talk to themselves and sound like adults. In Little Beauties (Simon & Schuster, $23), Kim Addonizio has gone one step further and imbued an unborn baby with a narrative role that is, surprisingly, rather entertaining. "It's hard to relax, when Mom is so keyed up," says Stella from inside the womb of her teenage mother, Jamie. "Take it easy, Mom. Everything's okay. I'm snug and cozy in here."

Addonizio's two other misfit narrators are equally deadpan and knowing. Diana, a 34-year-old obsessive-compulsive whose husband has just left her, works in a baby store called Teddy's World. "I used to look into the eyes of my childhood teddy, Ginger, and see infinite love," she observes one day on the job. "This one just looks at me though. That's how they all are now. Today's teddies look out only for themselves."

Through this job, Diana meets pregnant Jamie, who wanders into the store one day even though she's planning to give up her baby for adoption. Soon after, Jamie goes into labor and delivers in the back seat of a Mercedes driven by a traumatized widower who finds salvation in this oddball act of good samaratinism.

The plot clips wackily along from there. Addonizio demonstrates a light touch about weighty matters -- mental illness, love and loss, the responsibilities of parenting, suicide. Ultimately, her message is upbeat: It's possible to cope with all sorts of adversity, you never know when a twist of fate might drop redemption in your lap, and some talking babies really are funny.

Unhappy Families in Their Own Way

In The Woodsman's Daughter (Viking, $24.95), Gwyn Hyman Rubio has tried to write a sprawling Southern saga, a la Gone With the Wind, with feminist overtones. Told in three parts, the novel starts in the late 1800s with ne'er-do-well Georgia turpentine farmer Monroe Miller. A rough, restless man hiding an awful secret, Miller behaves cruelly toward his sickly, laudanum-addicted wife and blind, ailing daughter. Another daughter, Dalia, is the only one to survive Daddy's drinking and dastardly deeds.

Dalia strikes out on her own in part two, bagging a creepy dentist husband who gives her a son she doesn't much love. After husband number one drops dead, Dalia weds a plumpish older lawyer, with whom she has a much-adored daughter, Clara Nell, who becomes the focus of part three.

There would seem to be enough drama and emotion in Rubio's story to make for a decent book, if you like this sort of lengthy epic. But her prose is leaden, her pacing turgid and her three primary characters thoroughly unlikable. There's also a large dose of corn and a plethora of overwrought passages. "Procreation was the price of man's vanity, his hallway of mirrors, reproducing himself over and over," a teenage Dalia decides after seeing Father force himself on Mother. At times, Rubio chooses phrases that are downright strange, like "the obese scent of chicken" that comes wafting from Dalia's kitchen. Then there are the novel's horribly stereotypical African American characters, particularly Dalia's ever-faithful cook, Katie Mae.

Rubio's first novel, Icy Sparks, won a coveted place in Oprah's book club, and Rubio has been hailed as an up-and-coming Southern writer. Let's hope The Woodsman's Daughter is just her sophomore slump.

It's All Happening at the Zoo

Holiday Reinhorn writes disconcerting, edgy stories tinged with dark humor. In one of the 13 pieces in her first published collection, Big Cats (Free Press; paperback, $14.95), the pregnant woman narrator offers a ride to a boy she doesn't know and winds up taking him to her house. Why is she doing this? What does she want with him? Reinhorn doesn't say, but this simple, discomfiting piece -- the plot is so meager it seems odd to even call it a story -- is full of wonderfully original descriptive writing. The boy's filthy baseball mitt "rested on the seat between us like a rotting hand. The leather had a smell, and the smell had a taste. Like childhood, maybe. Like birth." The boy spits his spent chewing gum into the woman's hand, where it plops "gray and mottled as a little brain."

"By the Time You Get This" is a more conventional piece about a couple struggling to accept a horrible loss, but it's infused with Reinhorn's mordant wit. "The last time we were in bed together, it bothered me to look at him, he was in such good shape," muses the wife as she watches her fit husband jog around a Los Angeles reservoir. "I had to turn out the lights right away."

There are a few missteps in the collection. Reinhorn's elliptical style sometimes makes for more confusion than clarity, as in a rambling story ("The White Dog") about a woman and her dying pooch. And her ear for dialogue isn't always accurate. In the title story, about two adolescent girlfriends working in a zoo, an African American zookeeper's speech seems stilted and wrong (she says "my girl," instead of simply "girl"). Minor quibbles aside, Reinhorn writes about misfits and dysfunction in a voice that is clever, distinctive and refreshing. *

Susan Adams is an editor at Forbes magazine.