- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

Washington-born Tracy Chevalier, who now lives in London, has found her literary home among readers drawn to stories of yesteryear. In her newest novel, Falling Angels (Dutton, $24.95, 324 pages), she traces two London families whose lives intersect during the period of social and political change that marked the beginning of the 20th century.
In 1901, two young girls meet in a cemetery just after the death of Queen Victoria, while visiting the graves of their respective family members. They eventually forge a friendship, and through them the Coleman and Waterhouse families enter into each others' lives, though with some initial reluctance. The families, both bourgeois, are nevertheless separated by distinct differences in taste, manners, and social status, which set the stage for the conflicts to follow. While Mrs. Waterhouse, slave to all that is proper, goes imperiously about issuing such unassailable prescriptives as her complete guide to mourning etiquette, the freethinking Mrs. Coleman takes an opposite route.
Beautiful and adulterous, Kitty Coleman regards the death of the queen as a personal opportunity to break free, demonstrating her independence by taking up the cause of women's suffrage. Her efforts, self-serving and no more sincere than Mrs. Waterhouse's social climbing, fuel the plot and ultimately lead to disaster.
Packing her pages with interesting historical tidbits from Victorian mourning rituals to interior decorating styles, the author, as she has done in previous novels, convincingly lays out the physical landscape against which her characters play out their dramas. The characters themselves, however, are not always as interesting. Presented in the first-person and without the aid of a levelheaded third-person narrator to offer guidance and inject substance, these characters can sometimes appear as solipsistic snivelers. Added to this is the shift among multiple points of view which can make this somewhat complex story rather unwieldy at times.

Last Year's River by Allen Morris Jones (Houghton Mifflin, $23, 367 pages) is a quiet, thoughtful first novel full of insightful observations with cinematic reach.
New York debutante Virginia Price, a self-absorbed and reckless wild child, is banished to Wyoming in 1919, a complete disappointment to her high-society mother when what amounts to date rape results in her pregnancy. Out West she meets Henry Mohr, shell-shocked from the trenches of World War I and back on the family homestead where he endures the abuses of his mean-spirited father.
The two make their way toward each other and at first it seems only physical; but external circumstances conspire to forge their relationship and transform it into something more meaningful.
When Virginia's New York past follows her, and Henry realizes the only way to stop his father's abusing him is to confront the situation, the couple turns to each other to find the necessary courage. Filled out with a cast of concisely drawn secondary characters and enough convincing detail to provide a good sense of early-20th-century life in the American West, "Last Year's River" succeeds as a satisfying tale of triumph over personal, though not insignificant, tribulations.

The early death of a parent always leaves its mark and when the Powell brothers of North Carolina's Appalachia lose their father in Robert Morgan's This Rock (Algonquin, $24.96, 323 pages), the results are no less devastating.
Mr. Morgan is one of Oprah's chosen book club authors who, for his newest novel, draws once again on his Southern birthright as a storyteller to recount the rift that progressively widens between brothers Muir and Moody as each tries to grapple with the death of their father.
Their mother, Ginny, does what she can to hold the family together, but her sons, while they share the common bond of blood, share little else. Older brother Moody, jealous of what he believes is his younger brother's privileged place in the family, runs moonshine, racks up gambling debts, and makes enemies of all the wrong people. Quiet and dreamy Muir, on the other hand, can't settle on a plan for himself until visions of a congregation and a church of his own draw him down a crooked path toward the Baptist ministry.
Not all his mountain brethren think Muir has a preacher's calling. When some of them demonstrate their opposition, Moody steps into the fray at his peril. Deep down he loves his brother and, given the current state of his personal affairs, believes he has little to lose by showing that love. The bond between these brothers is at last strengthened, and if Mr. Morgan does not bring them each home safely, he manages at least to endow them with the broadness of heart and mind that results in enlightened characters and a satisfying ending.
But although Mr. Morgan's love for his rugged North Carolina homeland and the sturdy people who endure there is apparent, he falls short as storyteller by refusing to grasp firmly his role as narrator. Told in the first-person from Muir's and Ginny's shifting points of view, Mr. Morgan's people are hamstrung by the phonetic spellings and Southern-style grammatical errors that break the fictive dream and remind us that we're only reading after all. A stronger narrator could have avoided this flaw and worked to give us better access to these honorable characters.

In Debra Spark's The Ghost of Bridgetown (Graywolf Press, $24.95, 299 pages ) Charlotte Lewin travels to the Caribbean island of Barbados at her grandfather's request, to return to its rightful owner a valuable menorah held by her local New England congregation. Charlotte's sister Helen has recently and tragically died, and Charlotte's grandfather feels a trip to the island would also be restorative. His request to deliver the menorah while she's relaxing on the island seems simple enough, but it soon develops that there's considerable disagreement as to who actually owns the artifact.
As Charlotte learns, there had once been a thriving community of Sephardic Jews from Brazil who settled on Barbados, and then there wasn't, and then Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe arrived and restored the abandoned synagogue. It is this new congregation that puts in the call for the menorah. But so does the Bajan Institute, a low-budget organization dedicated to preserving the island's history of slave culture. As the work of a slave who was also a skilled metalsmith, the menorah, as the Bajan Institute's argument goes, is nothing less than stolen property and should be handed over to them.
With considerable doubt in her abilities to sort it all out, Charlotte sets off for sunny Barbados where relations between the Jewish community and the black islanders are worse then she thought, exacerbated by the unrelenting heat and complicated further by the seemingly accidental death of one of the local, prominent Jews.
Drawn further into the mix of cultures and customs that have put these Barbadoans at such odds, Charlotte is forced eventually to widen her viewpoint to consider the uses of ritual and of the role death plays in life, and to rise to the occasion and find a fitting home for the menorah. The unusual setting and subject of this novel are offset by the author's straightforward, seamless style which moves the story toward an ending that, if not entirely compelling, is at least satisfactory.

R.C. Scott is a writer living in Alexandria , Va.



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