Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Magazine article The New Yorker

Briefly Noted

Article excerpt

Lightning Field, by Dana Spiotta (Scribner; $23). The atmosphere of this skillful first novel, set in Los Angeles, is at once nervy and muted, like the double-edged mood that accompanies exhaustion. There's Mina, a restaurateur who drifts among three men in search of something she knows none of them can give her; Lorene, her elegant business partner, who once worked as a life-style consultant to the newly rich, telling them what single-malt Scotch to drink and what jazz to buy; Michael, her mentally unstable brother; David, her screenwriter husband; and Max, her lover and David's best friend. All five share a fear that they don't exist unless someone is paying attention to them, but since the possibility of lasting attention seems remote, they use style and taste to give shape to their lives: "I like small, orderly things I can contain," one says, explaining why he has cut himself off from his friends. Spiotta has a gift for evoking the way lucidity comes in flashes, like something glimpsed at the edge of a movie frame, making us want to see more.

Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks (Viking; $24.95). In 1665, the intense young pastor of a plague-stricken Derbyshire village persuades his parish to quarantine itself from the outside world. This selfless decision leads to the deaths of two-thirds of the inhabitants but saves the surrounding towns, as it did in the case of the historical village that inspired the tale. The novel glitters with careful research into such arcana as seventeenth-century lead-mining, sheep-farming, and, of course, medicine, but its true strength is a deep imaginative engagement with how people are changed by catastrophe. Fear and despair fan the usual petty rivalries of village life into murderous hatreds, and the community fragments just when it should be pulling together. A rare few--including the narrator, a young widow who is a servant of the pastor--discover new strengths and abilities. …

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