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IN BRIEF

Fiction

June 23, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS

A CHANCE TO SEE EGYPT by Sandra Scofield (HarperCollins: $22; 252 pp.). Sandra Scofield has always been skeptical of what she calls "contemporary psychological models" of human behavior. In past novels, such as "Beyond Deserving" and "Opal on Dry Ground," she held her characters up to the mirror of the prevailing therapeutic view of things, saw too much or too little in it, and tossed the mirror away. Now, in the story of Thomas Riley, a widowed Chicago pet-store owner who travels to Mexico to grieve where he and his wife honeymooned--the "Egypt" of the title refers to the sense of adventure and possibility she brought to his pinched life--Scofield turns to "concepts of the mystical experience . . . that gave me an explanation for character that was a satisfying alternative."

Riley, a good but timid and self-effacing man, is invisible at home. But in Mexico, as a romantic pilgrim, he stands out. His interest in ordinary Mexicans offends the expatriate American community in Lago de Luz, a resort area resembling Lake Chapala, but pleases his writing teacher, Charlotte Amory, who has been exiled by her own mishaps in love and art. She introduces him to Consolata Arispe, a middle-aged cafe owner with whom Riley envisions the same kind of relationship he had with his wife. Bigger plans are being made for him, however, if he will submit to these women's benign witchcraft. Arispe wants to marry off her beautiful daughter, Divina, before she is trapped in poverty. But Riley can't aim that high until his goodness grows the muscles of courage. Scofield, writing more tersely and confidently with each book, fills these pages with knowing descriptions of Mexican village society and confounds our expectations: Isn't there going to be more irony? More obvious conflict? We wait to see whether Riley can take Amory's life-advice: "Change the plot. Introduce new characters."

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