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FICTION : JEFFREY COUNTY by Kathleen Ford (St. Martin's: $13.95; 197 pp.).

August 31, 1986|Frank Levering

The county lending this novel its title will not be found on any map of the Virginia Piedmont, the red clay region east of the Blue Ridge Mountains where the story --what there is of it--takes place. Unfortunately, the fictional Jeffrey County is not quite ready to take its place on a literary map. This first novel is being published at least one rewrite too soon. A damn shame, too, because Kathleen Ford, a notable writer of short stories and a Charlottesville, Va., resident, has a subtle touch with character--particularly women--and a simple, seemingly effortless prose. It's a story well worth pursuing, an ensemble piece tracking the lives of four small-town characters as they intersect in a rather ordinary arena of small-town romance and work life. What's more, Ford's central theme is in itself compelling: the fitful search for where and with whom one truly belongs, the search for home.

Ford has the ingredients, but not the pie. Among other things, her effort is marred by serious implausibilities, particularly in the first several chapters where a novelist can least afford to lose credibility; by a dreadfully informational, undramatic first 50 pages that labor to set up the plot of a relatively short novel; by faulty construction that deflates dramatic moments once the plot does get moving; by inaccurate observations of outdoor Virginia life, which forms much of the background of her story (One character awakens at 4 on a January morning and waits but a few minutes until dawn outlines a barn), and by the author frequently mistaking her own descriptive voice for the thoughts of her characters.

Because Ford attempts to show us the extraordinary in ordinary lives, because her intimate details work so hard to depict a seamless real world, this novel falls with a hard thud from the height of its aspirations. While her successes are admirable, her failures are too fundamental for Ford to have allowed this story past the Virginia state line. This would-be novel and its fictional county could stand a shake-up, a hard, fresh wind blowing east from the Blue Ridge.

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