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BOOK REVIEW : Family Tug-of-War Over a Plot of Land : THE FORMS OF WATER, By Andrea Barrett , Pocket Books $20, 304 pages


Henry Auberon has returned with his Uncle Brendan to Coreopsis Heights, the real-estate subdivision that proved to be his undoing.

Half-built houses, bulldozer slashes in the hillside, dried mud, aging lumber, even squatters: It's a grisly reminder of failure, but Henry sees, perhaps for the first time, that no amount of risk would have prevented him from developing the family land.

"Gone, he thought. All of it. And as he continued to look at his uncle's face, he wondered if Coreopsis Heights had not been, all along, simply the only way he could find to destroy the memory of his childhood there"--that what he felt while watching his grandparents' homestead fall was not the thrill of new beginnings but "the joy of destruction," the obliteration of the last physical vestiges of his childhood.

The despoiling of rural ways of life through real-estate development has become a common literary theme in recent years, fueled largely by growing environmental awareness and the sheer crudeness of the average suburban housing venture.

At first, such destruction appears to be a major theme in Andrea Barrett's newest novel, her fourth, but the story turns out to be rather more complicated: Henry is more pathetic than unscrupulous, Brendan's connection to his ancestral home is limited, and the remaining members of the Auberon clan are driven primarily by self-interest.

Although by the end of the novel Henry seems to have understood the error of his ways, "The Forms of Water" isn't a simple morality tale in which the just are rewarded and the unjust punished.

Barrett has written "The Forms of Water," surprisingly, as a kind of road novel. Brendan, a former monk and now a crippled resident of a rest home in Upstate New York, has persuaded Henry to "borrow" a rest-home van and take him to a secluded plot of land next to Stillwater Reservoir in Massachusetts. The van is soon reported missing, and Henry and Brendan become the unlikely focus of a manhunt--unlikely because neither man is particularly wanted, by family or by authorities.

There's soon a caravan of sorts, however, as various Auberons figure out where Henry and Brendan have headed and decide, for their selfish reasons, to catch up with them. Wiloma, Henry's sister, wants to save Brendan's mortal soul by taking him home and introducing him to her cultish Church of New Reason; Waldo, Wiloma's ex-husband and a more successful real-estate investor than Henry, hopes to get his hands on Brendan's 200 acres; even the cousins, Wiloma's and Henry's children, join the chase, worried that their parents will end up reliving old family disputes.

Barrett follows each of these groups--Henry and Brendan, Waldo and Wiloma and the carload of cousins--as they make their way toward the reservoir, and the result is an overly diffuse narrative.

Henry and Brendan are much more interesting characters than Waldo and Wiloma or the younger generation, for they seem to have real concerns and real confusions in their lives, to believe that their adventure, however misguided, is truly about something.

It's clear, though, why Barrett has developed the other characters at some length: so she can have a convincing rendezvous when the three bands of relations converge to watch Brendan, in the novel's climactic scene, go out in a rowboat on Stillwater Reservoir, which used to be Paradise Valley, where Brendan lived before it was dammed to create a water supply for Boston.

Brendan has come here to mourn that loss, and when Henry understands that, he also understands why the development of Coreopsis Heights was a mistake.

"The Forms of Water" is a curious book, overstuffed with apparently meaningful memories and moments and relatively shapeless, given direction chiefly by the magnetic pull of Brendan's land. Yet the book is frequently compelling, for Barrett is a good writer drawing, one senses, from a deep and difficult place.

There are no speeches about progress in this novel, about the need to balance development with preservation, the past with the future, but those issues form the backdrop against which this novel takes place.

It's tempting to say that "The Forms of Water" would have been a better book if Barrett had made the connection between her characters and this background more explicit, but in this age of heavy-handedness, one doesn't want to chide a writer for showing an unexpectedly light touch.

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