The artist's first duty, says C.S. Lewis, is to interest. "Very serious faults will be covered as if by charity," he continues, and he could almost have been talking about "The Two Farms," which maintains reader interest without much creativity or even a very original plot. But in a time when most writers have finessed the problem of making the ordinary interesting by choosing to write instead about the extraordinary, author Mary Pearce succeeds by a quiet layering of a familiar plot and characters with the detail of humaneness.

The two farms in question are Peele and Godsakes in rural Gloucestershire in the 1840s. They face each other across the valley of the Timmy Brook and are owned by two very different men. John Sutton of Peele is vigorous and progressive; Morris Riddler of Godsakes is uncouth, haphazard and unlucky as well.

Pearce has honed her technique of piling up small believable incidents, following the two farmers as their relationship changes from a reserved cordiality to hostility. Sutton maneuvers for his best interest; Riddler's circumstances deteriorate as a result. When, for plausible reasons, Sutton's foster son, Jim Lundy, offers Riddler his intelligence, labor and money to revitalize Godsakes, he is accepted with open arms and engineered into a marriage of convenience with Riddler's daughter Kirrin. In time the partners of that marriage will fall deeply in love.

Now none of this is new. The English farmer has been literary fodder at least since Thomas Hardy, and the idea of husband and wife falling into love with each other is a staple of romantic plotting to this day.

But it's what Pearce does with those familiar people and the plot that makes "The Two Farms" good reading. Her compact, dialogue-oriented style avoids sentimentality even with standard characters like Kirrin, hardened by heavy physical labor and her father's boorishness, or Jim, who is only a tad short of too good to be true. Growing beyond their feelings of rejection and revenge, they find satisfaction in the consequences of hard work and a growing relationship. The best impulses of human nature are confirmed.

Just as appealing, the rural background will charm city dwellers who suddenly yearn for a significant connection to the land and the simple life. In fact, all Pearce's books emphasize the sheer physical labor that until recently marked the lives of ordinary people, "bound . . . body and soul" to the land. Washing, shearing, carting, churning, ploughing, haying, her characters live far more physically than moderns.

With no pretensions to profundity, Pearce evokes a way of life that really was less complicated, if not always more innocent. It is a good story.