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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL : Caught Up in an Encyclopedia of Love : STARCARBON by Ellen Gilchrist ; Little, Brown $22.95, 396 pages

July 01, 1994|ELAINE KENDALL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Admirers of Ellen Gilchrist's prior novels will know the complex genealogy of Olivia de Havilland Hand, part Oklahoma Cherokee, part North Carolina gentry, and will have met her when she was a spirited child living with her Oklahoma aunts and grandparents.

Until adolescence, when her mother's sister tracked her down in Tahlequah, Olivia had been oblivious of the Charlotte relations, but once aware that she not only had a living father, but a half-sister--Jessie--Olivia has come to know and love her newfound Carolina relatives. Her Cherokee mother had left Daniel Hand to return to Oklahoma and had died giving birth to the child her husband never knew existed.

Now Olivia has just finished her freshman--and perhaps her only--year at Chapel Hill and is paying a short visit to her father before returning to Oklahoma and the independent Western life she's missed. Her plan for the summer is to study Native American cultures and reclaim her heritage.

Another priority is finding Bobby Tree, the rodeo rider who had been her high-school lover. A few tepid romances at the university have convinced her that he's her destiny, a fact that Bobby never doubted.

When Olivia left Tahlequah for Chapel Hill, Bobby, lovelorn and devastated, signed on as a hand at the Macalpins' Starcarbon Ranch in Montana, where he's worked himself up from useful to virtually indispensable. His employers, the Macalpins, have become surrogate parents for Bobby, the son of a feckless father and a long-vanished mother.

This volume of the Hand family chronicle is in continuous motion, pausing in Charlotte to renew acquaintance with Olivia's father; moving on to New Orleans to check up on Olivia's half-sister and her new baby; stopping in Montana where Bobby is about to leave Starcarbon for his reunion with Olivia; then back-tracking to Boston where Olivia's Aunt Helen lives with her Irish poet lover, Mike, but alighting most often in Tahlequah, the tiny Oklahoma town where Olivia learned to be the willful and endearing heroine she is.

A family tree at the beginning of the book is a considerate gesture, because the connections do tend to get literally out of Hand. Once we're oriented, however, these many lives and diverse loves exert considerable fascination, creating their own internal cohesion.

By the time we meet Olivia's summer school anthropology professor, Georgia Jones, M.D. and Ph.D., we're as ready as we'll ever be for a new character with a fresh set of romantic problems.

Georgia has left her medical practice to teach at the small Oklahoma college and decide how to spend the rest of her life, a decision complicated by the fact that she has fallen in love with a nuclear physicist with a serious commitment problem, as well as a few other personality quirks. In the course of sorting out her personal difficulties, Georgia not only manages to clarify Olivia's emotions, but provides us with an entirely different take on love.

Love, in all its guises and varieties, is the subject of this thoroughly engaging novel. Without scanting any of the usual manifestations, the author has included a few less frequently encountered.

There is the profound mutual love between Olivia and the grandparents who link her to her Native American ancestry, and the particular affection she feels for Helen--her dead mother's sister and the renegade aunt who left her husband and five children to create another, far more difficult life in Boston.

Gilchrist explores the deepening ties between Daniel Hand and the unknown daughter he welcomed with all his heart, a love that filters down to unite Olivia with Jessie. There's also the mutual respect and trust between Bobby Tree and the Macalpins, contrasting with the loyalty Bobby feels toward his unfortunate but fundamentally decent father.

In addition to the youthful physical passion between Bobby and Olivia and the mature, but equally intense affair between Helen and Mike, there's the lifelong devotion of Olivia's grandparents, Little Sun and Crow.

When you include the pervasive love felt by each character for the land--the stark beauty of Oklahoma and the gentle hills of Carolina--the result is virtually an emotional encyclopedia.

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