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IN BRIEF

Fiction

July 21, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

THE SOLITAIRE MYSTERY A Novel About Family and Destiny by Jostein Gaarder (Farrar Straus & Giroux. $22, 309 pp.). Here is an honest-to-goodness dream-making bedtime story for grown-ups, in the proud tradition of "Alice in Wonderland." Norwegian-born Jostein Gaarder is also the plot-meister of "Sophie's World," the 1994 novel-philosophy course that sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. The bright-eyed former philosophy professor knows how to craft a plot plausible enough to support his mad-hatter characters and flexible enough to allow his wild imagination to splash off the page.

Gaarder's protagonists are, in both books, children. In "Solitaire," Hans Thomas takes a trip with his father. They drive from Norway to Greece to find Hans' errant mother and bring her home. The boy loves his father, a philosophizing mechanic. When not philosophizing or remembering Hans' mother, he collects jokes.

There are a few pages of utter normalcy (during which Gaarder's writing may remind you of Tobias Wolff's "This Boy's Life") and then bam: A midget in a gas station gives Hans a magnifying glass, and it's Lewis Carroll from here on in. The magnifying glass proves useful when the boy is given a tiny book by an aged baker during a stopover in Dorf. The book, of course, tells the story of Hans' heritage, and his father's and his grandfather's, mirroring the quest for the errant mother and explaining a few missing links along the way.

When our author is not creating miniature worlds peopled by the 52 cards in a deck, he proves equally adept at believable if slightly lost real people. Gaarder has an empathetic imagination. He is a kindly old watchmaker-novelist.

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