A BETTER PLACE By Barbara Hall; Simon & Schuster 287 pp., $21
HOUSE WORK By Kristina McGrath; Bridge Works 198 pp., $19.95
SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS By David Guterson; Harcourt Brace 345 pp.,
GUPPIES FOR TEA By Marika Cobbold; St. Martin's Press 287 pp.,
THIRD AND INDIANA By Steve Lopez; Viking 305 pp., $21.95
WHEN I was still young enough to be choosing books by their
covers (pretty pictures and catchy titles usually caught my eye),
my father let me in on the more sophisticated method of seeking out
works of a particular author whose previous books I'd enjoyed. This
method generally fails, of course, when it comes to first novels,
which do keep coming out despite a faltering market for fiction.
The name Barbara Hall might perhaps be familiar to folks who
scan the credits of television shows (she's written for "Northern
Exposure," "Moonlighting," and "I'll Fly Away") or to readers
acquainted with her young people's fiction. Her first adult novel,
A Better Place, clearly draws on her knowledge of Hollywood and on
her experience of growing up in a small town in Virginia.
The catalyst of this novel's action is Valerie Caldwell, who was
the belle of every ball in the little town of Maddock where she
grew up. After 14 years of trying to make it as a movie star in Los
Angeles, including marriage to a semi-successful aspiring
screenwriter, Valerie returns to her old stomping grounds. She's
looking for a place where she can be "special" once more, and not
just another pretty young hopeful in a sea of others just like her.
Valerie's dear old friends, Tess and Mary Grace, who once served
as her admiring acolytes, are a lot less anxious to see Valerie
again. The same goes for Joe Deacon, Valerie's former fiance, whom
she ditched to seek out stardom. Even Valerie's own parents are
less than delighted to have their little princess back home
ordering them around again.
Hall tells the story of Valerie's attempt to defy Thomas Wolfe's
adage, you can't go home again, from the viewpoints of her worried
but open-hearted friend Tess; the still vulnerable Joe, who's
married Tess; and Valerie herself. The author's insights into her
characters' mixed motivations, her keen sense of humor, and her
accurate portrayals of both small-town life and Los Angeles
lifestyles make this a more-than-usually engaging read.
Kristina McGrath's poems and short stories have appeared in
places like Harper's and the Paris Review, so if not quite a
household name, neither is she a complete unknown. House Work, her
first novel, is less a conventional novel than a series of
intensely focused, lyrically descriptive vignettes: portraits of a
working-class Pittsburgh family in the period 1945-67, seen through
the eyes of mother, father, and youngest daughter.
Guy, a handsome charmer unable or unwilling to take on
responsibility, fades into an alcoholic, erratic visitor. His wife,
Anna, who once thought it a kind of sacred honor to look after her
man, must cope with the hard realities of his shiftlessness.
Louise, their youngest child, grows up in a broken home, sustained
by her mother's strong faith in the power of housework - the
countless acts of care and labor that go into making a home.
"The corners of sofas and floors taught compassion...; there
was grace in the turns of the rocker; humility and pride in the
scrub rags.... There was a certain way to do things to make life