- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

As in her previous novel “Plum & Jaggers,” Susan Richards Shreve begins her

new novel, A Student of Living Things (Viking, $24.95, 246 pages) with a burst of unexpected violence: In “Plum & Jaggers,” it was the explosion of a bomb in a train that killed the parents of the four young protagonists.

In “A Student of Living Things,” it’s the shooting death of Steven, Claire Frayn’s beloved brother. As are the children in the earlier novel, Claire is part of a close, if somewhat disjointed family; in both cases, the deaths become the focal point of the survivors’ lives. But there the similarities end.

“A Student of Living Things” has none of the quixotic humor of the earlier novel. It is part detective story, part psychological study of a woman so confused and angered by the loss of the person she loves most that she turns to a stranger who appears to be a close friend of Steven’s and who is seeking her help in finding the killer.

In the course of this search and the deception it entails — in which Claire deliberately keeps her family as well as the FBI in the dark — Claire falls in love. All is resolved (not completely unexpectedly) and there’s a happy ending, sort of.

Ms. Shreve has set her novel in a Washington beset by minor terrorist events, inspired the author says, by the two snipers who held Washington captive a few years ago. But that aspect of the plot is not developed, and aside from causing a certain malaise at the beginning of the book, it seems to be dropped later on.

“A Student of Living Things” moves along nicely with a plot sufficiently original and engaging to keep a reader turning the pages. The characters, even when neither likeable nor fully developed, are interesting.

Anne Tyler has a gift for turning the mundane, the everyday life of ordinary people into extraordinary discoveries of the depth of human alienation and affection. Her 17th novel, Digging to America (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95, 377 pages), is the story of two families living in Baltimore, one a big brood of Americana, the other a small group of Iranian immigrants. They meet at the airport, waiting to welcome their respective adopted Korean girl babies. Both families are thrilled.

Bitsy Donaldson is an aggressive, well-meaning woman who takes charge of situations. She is determined to raise her new daughter with as much Korean tradition as possible. Sami and Ziba Yazdan, being immigrants themselves, try to Americanize their little Susan.

The families meet every year on the anniversary of the arrival of the girls, alternating houses and cuisines. The Yazdans delicious Persian meals are cooked by shy, aristocratic Maryam, Sami’s mother, who lives alone, adores Susan and finds it difficult to live in America.

Time goes by. Bitsy’s mother dies of cancer; the family reunions continue although neither family really enjoys the get-togethers, especially not the adopted girls. Bitsy’s widowed father falls in love with Maryam; Bitsy falls ill; Maryam accepts, rejects and finally accepts the new life that is being offered to her.

The story is banal yet moving in its simplicity and realism. Only when the narrative suddenly shifts to the children’s point of view does the novel falter. The struggle of the young immigrant to succeed; the nostalgia of the old for what has been left behind and the insecurity that comes from being “different” are all true to life in Ms. Tyler’s skilled hand.

The generosity of the American spirit and the triumph of the wish to be included, to love and to survive are the powerful motivating forces which surround the adults in this tender, lovely novel.

Suite Francaise (Alfred A. Knopf, $25, 395 pages), first published in France in 2004 and now ably translated into English by Sandra Smith, consists of the first two parts of a five-part novel written while Irene Nemirovsky and her family were fleeing from the German invasion of France in the early 1940s.

Born in Russia and living in France since the Russian Revolution, Nemirovsky was a well known writer. She was 39 years old when she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered in 1942. Her husband was arrested and killed a few months later, but her two little daughters survived and salvaged the manuscript.

The first part of the novel, “Storm in June,” is a searing account of the exodus from Paris on the eve of the German occupation. Nemirovsky’s characters come from various strata of society, among them two bank employees whose son is in the vanquished French army; an aristocratic family with one son a priest who dies shockingly and another who runs off to fight for France; an egocentric writer and his long suffering mistress.

The chaos, misery, greed, selfishness, generosity, heroism, hunger and fear of the Parisians as they flee their city, subject to German bombing and strafing attacks, is detailed vividly. Some horde their provisions; others steal; some villagers offer shelter, others shutter windows and lock doors — “Closed doors where you knock in vain to get a glass of water and refugees who pillaged houses; everywhere, everywhere you look, chaos, cowardice, vanity and ignorance!”

“Dolce,” the second part of “Suite Francaise,” takes place in a village near the demarcation line between occupied France and the unoccupied zone just as the German army marches in. The village aristocrats are eager to collaborate; the peasants are wary and suspicious; the shopkeepers and middle class appear willing to treat the young blond Germans as human beings.

The central character in “Dolce” is Lucile, a beautiful young woman whose husband is a prisoner of war. She lives with her mother-in-law who despises her. Lucile’s was never a happy marriage, and she is drawn to the German lieutenant billeted in her house who falls in love with her. When a young peasant kills a soldier, she is galvanized into action.

Nemirovsky’s great talent is to tell a riveting story with irony (“What separates or unites people is not their language, their laws, their customs, their principles, but the way they hold their knife and fork”); compassion (“The mothers of prisoners or soldiers killed in the war looked at [the invaders] and begged God to curse them, but the young women just looked at them”); and lyrical beauty (“The path was lined with lilies; their silky buds had burst open under the last rays of the sun and now the sweet-smelling flowers blossomed proudly in the night air.”)

Throughout this extraordinary novel lies the author’s deliberate emphasis on the positive side of the invading presence and the minimizing of horrors. In her notes printed at the end of the book, which give a clue as to what the unwritten three parts of the novel might contain, Nemirovsky states, “If I want to create something striking, it is not misery I will show but the prosperity that contrasts with it.”

She points out that “[a]ll in all, it’s only the initial shock that counts. People get used to everything, everything that happens in the occupied zone: massacres, persecution, organized pillaging, are like arrows shot into mire! … the mire of our hearts.”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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