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The Village of Refuge : CONSIDER THIS, SENORA, By Harriet Doerr (Harcourt Brace: $21.95; 256 pp.)

August 22, 1993|Charles Bowden | Bowden's most recent book (with Michael Binstein) is "Trust Me: Charles Keating & The Missing Billions" (Random House)

Ursula Bowles has come to Mexico in her late '70s in order to die. She selects an American colony of new houses on a mesa above a village. Writer Harriet Doerr visited this emotional terrain several years ago in her striking first novel, "Stones for Ibarra." In an understated yet almost lyrical voice, Doerr is able to describe a very circumscribed yet full world, a place where people are genteel, have money they inherit rather than earn and, despite all of life's blessings, know they are incomplete. These wealthy Americans come to back-roads places in Mexico and let poor people, who can barely read, teach them how to acknowledge their own feelings. It is a view that is perhaps almost a cliche about Americans in Mexico, and I'm happy to report that in Doerr's hands it works.

"Consider This, Senora" begins with 28-year-old Sue Ames wandering the countryside after her five-year marriage collapsed when she caught her husband with another woman. In a real estate office, she bumps into a contentious fellow citizen, Bud Loomis, on the lam from Tucson over tax charges. They buy 10 acres on a bluff above Amapolas from Don Enrique, a man whose family's Spanish roots go back to the invasion by Cortes, subdivide it into lots and by this act bring the other characters into the story. There is Herr Hugo, a mysterious German, who plays a single note hour after hour on his Steinway; Goya, a seemingly blind and deaf old woman who goes everywhere with a goat tied to her; the central figure Ursula, and her wayward daughter Frances who is twice married, estranged and perhaps looking for love in all the wrong places. And of course the Mexican people of Amapolas who constantly remind the rich people on the mesa what really matters in life. For example, when the initial purchase of the land takes place:

"Then it was done--the agreement signed, the tray set down, the brandy poured, the toast proposed and drunk.

"At this moment, in Amapolas del Lago, Altagracia Gomez entered the church to kneel at the back and offer prayers for a necklace and high-heeled shoes."

Harriet Doerr has the wisdom of knowing the strict limits of her moral universe, boundaries which define the upper-class world she expresses so well. The males of this story do big things--plan resorts, build dams, throw up subdivisions, find ancient ruins--and the women create books, sketches and tasteful homes.

The Mexicans are not unknowable, but neither are they reduced to something cute, or simple, or American. They are presented as people who see things differently and express these views with tolerance. Not surprisingly, the only American to marry a Mexican in this proper world is the ungentlemanly Bud Loomis, who comes to Amapolas with a whiff of scandal trailing him: He marries a 16-year-old servant girl he has made pregnant. Frances has her fling with a twice-widowed Mexican bureaucrat, Paco, but that love will not last. And Sue seems to live in a quiet, celibate bliss in her lovely home on the mesa and keeps busy sketching and painting.

The novel does not center on the actions of the characters so much as on the slow dying and growing understanding of Ursula Bowles. Born the daughter of a mining engineer in a small Mexican outpost seven decades earlier, she has consciously come back not simply to spend her last years, but to savor and recover the strong sensual feelings of her childhood. When her daughter publishes a book, "Your Mexico," she is disturbed by its deliberate and sentimental falsehoods, which deny the poverty and at times strangeness of the country. But in the well-mannered way that characterizes almost everyone in the story, she says nothing to her daughter, except, "A beautiful job. Really an achievement."

Ursula Bowles (and Harriet Doerr) realize that no matter how much time and money expatriate Americans put into their new homes, they are not of this place and will not stick:

"In Amapolas, the townspeople watched the exodus of the householders without surprise. If they themselves had been forced to leave this place because of lack of food or money, they would have returned as soon as matters improved. . . . Don Enrique . . . knew that in coming here, they (the Americans) moved too far from the dwellings and graves of their ancestors."

As the tale plays out, the widow Bowles sinks deep into the sea of her memories, recalling the quiet moments of a half-century marriage, the feel and scent of a horse ridden when she was a 7-year-old girl coming down the mountain each morning to the school run by the nuns.

In exploring these memories, Harriet Doerr makes her case that a civilized life is worth living, that manners help people, that love is worth all the difficulty and compromise it entails, that life is too brief for our hungers and yet too intricate for our understanding. And she convinces the reader with her graceful prose that these obvious beliefs are worth being reminded of, lest we forget the pleasures of a decent passage on this planet.

This is a book deliberately out of fashion--not a thriller or a confession or a criminal expose. A summing up, it is oddly tonic for a time when a quiet life well lived is difficult for many to conceive and seemingly impossible for anyone to commit to paper. Savor "Consider This, Senora" like a drink in the evening before a fine fire.

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