To get right to the question at hand, the answer is: Yes. Judith Guest has done it again. The hundreds of thousands of readers who were touched and amused by her lovely first novel, "Ordinary People," are going to find themselves touched and amused by her second, "Second Heaven." If from time to time Guest seems to be straining in the effort to demonstrate that she is no one-shot phenomenon, who's to complain? The virtues of "Second Heaven" are manifold, and far more consequential than its few flaws.
What a pleasure it is to be able to say this. For many American writers, gaining a great critical and commercial success with a first novel has been the kiss of death. In some cases, literally so: Thomas Heggen ("Mister Roberts") and Ross Lockridge ("Raintree County") committed suicide at the height of their fame, each apparently paralyzed by it. In other cases, writers who have had enormously successful first novels have either failed to produce publishable second novels or have rested on the laurels earned by the first; the most famous instance of this is Harper Lee, who for whatever reason has produced nothing since "To Kill a Mockingbird."
My hunch -- and it is nothing except a hunch -- is that the memory of these and other notable flashes in the pan weighed heavily on Judith Guest as she worked on "Second Heaven." That the book was six years in the making suggests as much. So does her rather transparent effort to transfer the themes of the first novel into a situation that will not seem a mere carbon copy of it. And so too does the novel's tentative, somewhat uncertain beginning, one that betrays the author's nervousness.
Never mind. Guest settles down soon enough, and into a story that strikes a number of universal chords. Set in Detroit, it involves three people who decide -- slowly, painfully, with fear and trepidation -- to take the risk of engaging themselves in the lives of the others. The narrative moves from one point of view to another: Mike Atwood, a lawyer who was divorced a few years ago and whose two children now live in suburban Washington; Catherine (Cat) Holzman, more recently divorced, now trying to find a place in life for herself; Gale Murray, a physically and psychologically battered 16-year-old boy whom she has taken into her house.
Gale's father, a tight-lipped religious fanatic, has tracked him down to Cat's residence and demanded that the law return him to the home he has fled. The boy is put in a juvenile detention center pending disposition of his case. Mike regards the entire situation as ridiculous and hopeless, but agrees to represent the boy as a favor to Cat; he is strongly drawn to her, and indeed is falling in love with her. At first the relationship between the lawyer and his young, frightened client is hostile and fruitless; but as the lawyer comes to understand the desperation of the boy's circumstances, and as the boy begins to realize that he can trust the lawyer, they find ways to work together. The obstacles to a satisfactory resolution are very large, but this trio of unlikely and initially unwilling allies finds ways to overcome them.
Certainly this tale is, by comparison with that of "Ordinary People," a bit contrived and artificial, and certainly the parallels between the two books need no elaboration: the troubled teen-aged boy, the clumsy adult efforts to help him, the slow development of mutual trust, the discovery that it is better to be together than alone. But neither contrivance nor familiarity can disguise the skill and, most particularly, the sensitivity with which Guest tells her story. She is an extraordinarily perceptive observer of the minutiae of domestic life, and she writes about them with humor and affection. Her description of Mike's post-divorce angst is a case in point:
"Nothing helped. You gained weight; you lost it. You moved out of one apartment and into another. You renewed your library card, became a fiction addict, read as many as four books a week. You bought a new car. You quit smoking. A dozen times a day you told yourself to grow up, all the while realizing that, while you were in terrific pain, your problems were not unique--not even very interesting. To be so full of rage and grief, and to know it didn't matter to anyone, that was what killed you. Looking back, he knew that he had gone insane for a time. He would not want to suffer that period of his life over again. Not for anything."
The salient aspect of that paragraph is its truth. As she has so often done in both her novels, Guest has in a few sentences cut right to the quick of a terribly complex experience. She understands the nuances of people's feelings about the most intimate and mysterious aspects of their lives, and she knows how to describe those feelings accurately and honestly. Yes, she has a sentimental streak; it is just about impossible to imagine her writing a book with an unhappy ending, even though the world she otherwise so faithfully depicts does not, in fact, have many happy ones to offer. But she is an intelligent writer, and a witty one, and the courage she demonstrates in risking failure after her first great success is wholly admirable. So, in every respect that really matters, is "Second Heaven."