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Fiction

December 13, 1987|Brett Singer

AGE OF CONSENT by Joanne Greenberg (Henry Holt: $17.95; 277 pp.).

Daniel Sanborn reminds us of Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa, or Dr. Tom Dooley. He travels--under cover--from Vietnam to Algeria, Ethiopia to Sri Lanka, Korea, Laos, Somalia, Bangladesh, Peru. Wherever comes war, political torture, floods, earthquakes--disasters both natural and man-made--so does Daniel Sanborn come along with his assistants.

Sanborn, a plastic surgeon, specializes in the reconstruction of faces. The entire Third World has benefited from his selfless, charitable work: children with burned-out faces, with harelips, victims of unimaginable, inadmissible human crimes.

His sister Vivian, an expert in antique European porcelain, has lived an extremely protected life as the wealthy heiress of an old-moneyed Jewish family. It is Vivian who provides for Sanborn, her saintly adopted brother, a refuge from his travails. "He would come to her exhausted, sometimes trembling with fatigue and hunger. Sometimes he had to sleep away the miasmas of jungles and the fires of deserts and the despair of a hundred encampments. Once he had said, 'Those people are all the same in one way. Their eyes follow you, lines of eyes. Their faces are different colors and shapes. They wait in heavy clothes or no clothes at all, but their eyes are the same. Their eyes follow you everywhere.' "

When Sanborn is killed, along with the archbishop of Malaga and two surgical assistants, their car having been ambushed in the Spanish countryside, it is Vivian who mourns him alone. She attempts to trace his itinerary through the world's poorest capitals, to reconstruct who he was and whom, if anyone, he loved.

Her effort to know the brother she never knew in life takes Vivian on a journey both worldly and psychic. Along the way, she discovers that Sanborn has left all his money to a vulgar nightclub comic named Jack Ripstein. It is this baffling connection between the concupiscent Ripstein and the otherworldly Sanborn that provides this intelligent provocative novel with its dramatic substance.

Joanne Greenberg, the author of 11 previous books, including the celebrated "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden" (under the name Hannah Green), has written a novel that will haunt the reader just as Sanborn was haunted by those suffering eyes. Greenberg has imagined a world as real and as evanescent as the world we really live in: a world in which goodness and evil cohabit, intimate and familiar as a pair of ill-suited friends.

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