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Where's the Magic? : CAST A SPELL, By Bette Pesetsky (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 195 pp.)

January 16, 1994|Anne Whitehouse | Anne Whitehouse is a free-lance writer

In Raemunde Howard, the "Miz Magic" of Bette Pesetsky's fifth novel, "Cast a Spell," Pesetsky has created an appealing, maligned protagonist. The people surrounding Raemunde seem driven to hurt her and damage her reputation, from her cousin Carrie who is trying to research and publish an expose about her to the adults who neglected or exploited her when she was a girl. Raemunde, pronounced Ray-mund-day, or Rae for short, is appealing because she doesn't seem to bear grudges, is not egotistical, but is single-minded, professional and sincere in her devotion to magic. She has pursued a career as a magician despite opposition since she was a young child, and has prevailed to become a television success beloved by children.

The novel quickly raises the following questions: Why is Carrie after Rae? What damaging secret from Rae's past does Carrie think she will uncover? Who is the mysterious male sleuth also making inquiries about Rae, and what is his motivation?

We soon learn that Rae, born to unmarried parents in 1952, was abandoned, first as a baby by her mother and then by her father and stepmother when she was 11. Courtesy of Child Welfare, she then arrived at her stingy, mean and ailing grandmother Minnie Howard's large and gloomy New York apartment. Here she grew up with her cousins Carrie and Lila, whose father had died and their mother gone crazy with grief.

The questions soon multiply: What happened to Rae's parents? What has recently motivated her to place ads in newspapers seeking news of her father? Why do so many people object to this undertaking? What responses has she received?

Meanwhile, we also learn that Rae has been married three times--to Whalen Clarke, a handsome, well-bred WASP who had once dated Carrie; to amusing, ugly Leo Littweiler, Rae's best friend as a teen-ager and now a Hollywood success; and to academic Peter Anson, orderly and protective, whose wife she still is.

Carrie's motivations quickly become apparent: her need for money, her envy of Rae's success and her anger at her for supposedly stealing Whalen. The answers to the other questions, however, are not forthcoming. Pesetsky hints of solutions to the mysteries she weaves when Rae discovers in her early 20s that her grandmother had secretly been sending her father money. But this clue never leads to anything. The problem is that Pesetsky sets up expectations, but she doesn't deliver on them. She blazes trails that go nowhere. She teases her readers, even omitting a confrontation between Carrie and Rae.

The novel begins with a series of letters that reveal Carrie's plaintive coaxing and awkward efforts to interest her dubious publisher. Soon the novel becomes a narrative told by Carrie, Rae or the omniscient narrator. These changes occur suddenly, without transition, and it's often hard to tell who the speaker is, since there is little differentiation between the voices. The novel moves confusingly back and forth in time so that it's often hard to place when an event is occurring.

If on the grand scale Pesetsky disappoints, there are compensations. She's a witty writer, with the ability to deliver a judgment or coin a phrase. Of an artist, Rae observes, "He is a salon painter. He does the perfection of unreality."

Pesetsky's descriptions of food are praiseworthy. Since the story "Ulcer" in her first book, "Stories Up to a Point" (1982), she has, in her attention to what her characters eat, granted to food its crucial place in human life. In "Cast a Spell" are a number of appealing descriptions of food, particularly of deli meals: "Caraway-seeded rye bread, roughly cut. A trembling embankment of pickles. Moist pepper-speckled coleslaw, potato salad sprinkled with Hungarian paprika."

What is most interesting about the novel are Rae's pronouncements about her profession. "People misunderstand what a true magician is. They confuse those skills with the role of seance-holders, oracles, fortune-tellers. You can learn to be a magician." "Conjuring--the true art, the making of magic--came to me when I was very young. I knew all the basics--the rope tricks with clothesline, the seesaw, the magic box, the dropping coin. I learned that behind every trick, every effect was the explanation. And knowing that made me a realist at an early age."

Despite these sparkling moments, "Cast a Spell" founders on its false leads and becomes a series of episodes and digressions. It's full of tricks, but lacking in magic.

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