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Fiction

March 15, 1987|Wanda Urbanska

CASTINE by Patricia Chute (Doubleday: $16.95; 272 pp.). Coastal Castine--quaint, out-of-the-way and dripping with history--may be a tourist's wonder, but it proves a Venus' flytrap for Patricia Chute in her second novel. Obviously enchanted with the town where Robert Lowell summered and where Maine's first tavern still stands, Chute plops her characters down like paper dolls and tries to draw life and plot around them. However, because Castine is inorganic to the novel's theme--a young woman's search for "her center"--it derails the story before it even gets started.

Cassie and Greg, longtime lovers and fellow writers, trade their beachfront digs in Venice, Calif., for Castine. " 'In transition' is the way they describe their lives at the moment," Chute writes, "for they are seeking a new and quiet place to relax, refuel, and find some fresh energy for the books they are writing." Only one problem: Cassie is not happy with her paternalistic spouse surrogate. They argue over whether a third party is "rooted" or "bonded"; they discuss the politics of commitment. He gives her space and back massages. His understanding becomes stifling. So sporting her red cape, Cassie takes up with Stefan, a young Czech minister who offers a liberating counterpoint to Greg's pop-psychology credo: "Human nature is a mystery to be lived with, not a problem to be solved." Cassie leaves Greg for Stefan. And eventually, she leaves Stefan, too, having found her own middle ground and the courage to pursue her destiny: as a magazine writer in the Big Apple.

Though Chute's considerable talent shines through in patches, the reader is never convinced that the stakes--or the passions--are real. With lovers' meetings staged on picture-postcard wharfs, in docked lifeboats and on old fort grounds, "Castine" comes off as a high-brow version of a one-summer-I-found-myself novel; events and props, rather than character change, lead the action. In the end, Cassie, Greg and Stefan leave Castine and find new mates, their lives no more transformed by their time here than had this tale taken place at a weekend bed-and-breakfast. The result is an occasionally charming, largely anemic novel.

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