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FORTUNE TELLER by Marsha Norman (Random House: $18.95; 387 pp.).

June 21, 1987|Janice Mall

It is hard to see why this Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (" 'night, Mother") put two plots in her first novel. There is a wise, tender story about the wrenching helplessness of a mother watching her grown child blithely struggle free and head for a fall. Then there's a kidnap thriller that might make a bad TV cop show.

At the center is Fay Morgan, a psychic with remarkable clairvoyant powers, who has reared her daughter Lizzie on her earnings telling fortunes in their dingy apartment. She has launched Lizzie like a middle-class butterfly--piano lessons, dancing school, art camps, and so much motherly love that Fay has not thought of marrying Arnie, a police detective and her lover of years. But now Lizzie is 19 and a moth to the flame of a careless, beautiful young man, Paul, whom her mother recognizes as the Devil in the Tarot deck.

On the day Paul comes for her daughter, Fay is obliged to solve the kidnaping. Here one can't merely suspend disbelief. One has to throw it away with both hands: 27 small children are snatched from their parents in separate incidents in one evening at a fair, and no one has seen or heard a thing. An entire city police department works on this spectacular case at the beck and call of a psychic and one detective as Fay and Arnie pursue Fay's visions that reveal where children are hidden and that the kidnapers are a gang of crazed anti-abortionists. This tale lumbers on, gathering complexities like lint.

Norman has written a rarer novel with the more ordinary portion of the story.

All day and night between her duties in the crime case, Fay frantically tries to set her daughter straight and Fay and Arnie sustain each other. Fay has vivid, detailed visions of Lizzie's future--lost to her mother and irretrievably hurt by Paul. With care and skill, Norman presents a woman who has no better weapons than any mother who knows best and tries to tell it to a child who's ready to fly.

Equally well done are Fay and Arnie, whose love affair is long, passionate and kind. Norman has offered something unusual in recent fiction, a love that is comfortable.

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