The Rice family of Ohio, who populate this arresting first novel, are not your average Midwesterners. During the early part of the century, Alice, Anna, Julia, brother Teddy and their parents were celebrities -- barnstormers, stunt pilots. Now, in 1952, only Alice and Teddy still fly. Their parents and Anna are dead; and Julia, once a great beauty and also given to flashes of clairvoyance, is grounded by age.

The younger generation is entirely earthbound. Martha, Anna's daughter who mothers the rest of the me'nage when she isn't cavorting with one of her blue-collar lovers, is terrified of the air. Her sister Jessie, a World War II daredevil, became, in an inexplicable instant some years before, catatonic and now sits vacantly watching TV and caressing the cat. Jessie's husband Andrew teaches school and lusts after Martha. Martha's father Vern lusts after Alice. The Rices get by flying charter customers and giving lessons to neighborhood kids, and they worry about whether they will have to sell off some of their land.

Unlike most first novelists, Berges knows enough about successful fiction to know that no matter how interesting the characters or exceptional the prose, there must be a plot. She maintains tension with a series of interlacing crises, the resolution of which provides the book with momentum. With considerable bravery, Berges has chosen to switch voices. Each character narrates a chapter and then recedes into the background of another character's narrative. Syncopation is a tricky device even for more practiced writers and is frequently botched. In Berges' case, it adds texture to a carefully, often elegantly written novel.

There is, however, more here than the intellectual excitement of seeing a talent begin. The Rices, for all their quirks, could be any family, and their triumphs and disappointments stand for those experienced by other clans. All happy families, Tolstoy wrote, are alike; so, in some ways, are all unhappy families. Berges, with her mature and compassionate sensibility, makes one care deeply about each of the Rices, creating reverberations from one's own experience and illuminating one's own life -- the proper function of fiction.