"What people crave are stories, Hugo," his grandfather tells the orphaned, eccentric young protagonist of "Real Life" as he defends their passion for a soap opera. And Hugo thinks, "it was just life: love, death, birth, murders, operations, those Russian spies, people's little weaknesses . . . " So is Kitty Burns Florey's fourth novel, an amiable, well-written work with its measure of love, death and little weaknesses, which joins the fortunes of Hugo and his contemporary-style "maiden" aunt, Dorrie.
"Real Life" assembles four characters, all loners who define themselves largely in terms of their solitude and loss. Dorrie is a 38-year-old potter living in rural Connecticut, almost resigned to the idea that she will never marry and taking pride and comfort from the rhythmic production of her art. Then 14-year-old Hugo arrives to live with her. He is "smart, nice, overweight, illegitimate, gets along with weirdos," thinks Dorrie, reluctantly summing up all she knows about him. He is also, although he doesn't know it, the son of a murdered junkie and a drug dealer, and addicted to the soap opera "Upton's Grove," which he used to watch with his grandfather. And Dorrie doesn't own a working TV.
This unlikely pair begin an unpromising summer. Hugo is bored and lonely, missing his dead grandfather and taking refuge in "Upton's Grove," which he watches at a kindly neighbor's. Dorrie is unsettled, alternately pitying and irritated by her nephew, and forced by his presence to remember the dead brother she resented for his wildness, and to brood on the fuller family life she does not have.
Then Hugo becomes dazzled by Nina, a feisty, wild-haired teen-ager who writes angry songs: "Something about it made Hugo want to cry. It wasn't only the song itself, though it was sad . . . but the combination of the music plus Nina's face as she sang -- ruminative and alert, as if she listened to herself and heard something surprising -- and, outside . . . the sun low in the sky making a golden path across the water . . . He was on this porch, not three feet away from . . . a strange, exotic girl who became more beautiful to him every second." At Nina's urging, he discovers the truth about his mother's death, and is afraid to confront Dorrie but resents her for the secret just as she grows more comfortable with him.
At the same time, Dorrie falls in love with Alex, an ironic writer suffering from writer's block and a recent divorce, who flowers under her affection and wants to marry her, but dislikes Hugo. Dorrie finds herself torn between her growing affection for Hugo and the fullness and wonder of her new life with Alex.
If the plot here begins to resemble Hugo's soap in its secret tensions and fortuitous connections, it is only a tenuous and humorous resemblance. Florey's characters are plausible and well rounded because she delineates them in effective detail, and she suggests the subtler shadings of their feelings.
Hugo, desperate to row across a pond to neighbors who might have a television, is touching and comic, and Dorrie's ambivalence about him is underlined as she watches him "run down across the lawn, ducking under the grayish underwear he had jumbled up on the line . . . She could just see him between the underpants and shirts, making straight for the pond . . . Oh, God she didn't want Hugo . . . Then Hugo was in the boat . . . and he was rowing in a circle. She could see his frantic efforts to control the oars . . . Dig, Hugo, she urged him on. From where she stood he appeared to be crying." Hugo does make it in time to catch half his show and is comforted with cookies and apple juice. Nearly everything in the novel has a happy resolution.
That is, in fact, the weakness in "Real Life," especially in its sunny and too rapidly worked out ending. Even Alex's supposedly bitchy ex-wife turns out to be nice. There is uncertainty hinted at, but lightly, mitigating the painful feelings that have been developed throughout the book.
It is, after all, not genuine "real life," even though its unlikely set of characters is convincingly drawn -- it is, being fiction, neater, more selective, more composed, and, in this case, more consistently heartwarming. You have to take it on faith that plump, sensitive Hugo is the child of junkies and that he's able to win the heart of a girl two years older, albeit a tiny and strident one who resembles, literally, a fox. You have to take it on faith that she's there to begin with, and that Dorrie and Alex fall immediately and completely in love -- "there had been no games, no fooling around, none of the fears she was so used to in her relations with men" -- and that still Alex flees after one argument. If you enter this novel in that spirit, the rest follows; and you can enjoy, if not quite miracles, then the warm and artful arrangement of "life" falling into place. By Linda Barrett Osborne; The reviewer, a Washington writer, is the author of "The Song of the Harp."