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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

THE GIANT'S HOUSE A Romance By Elizabeth McCracken; The Dial Press: 259 pp., $19.95

December 29, 1996|ANTONYA NELSON

If asked what Elizabeth McCracken's first novel, "The Giant's House," was about, one would be tempted to describe the outrageous premise: A librarian falls in love with her library's worthiest patron, who happens to be an 11-year-old boy, who happens also to be destined to become the world's tallest man. An unlikely romance follows.

But what the book is really about is the narrator's quest toward her own humanity. Librarian Peggy Cort, a wry intellectual, spinster material, declares in the opening passages of her memoir, "I do not love mankind." She runs her Cape Cod library with sardonic dispatch, feeling vaguely unappreciated, certainly misunderstood, quick to judge others and herself, sensitive and lonely.

The story, told retrospectively, opens in 1950 and chronicles Peggy's intimate friendship with James Sweatt, the giant. Eventually, the reader comes to understand that, although James is trapped in his personal bodily structure, Peggy is as elegantly trapped in her public one. Each acts as rescuer to the other, the profoundest "romance" imaginable. While McCracken has successfully created both her narrator and her giant, the true pleasure in this lovely novel resides in the intelligence of the insights offered by way of Peggy. Her discriminating study of the human race, her shrewd observations about behavior and the resulting distilled aphoristic pronouncements she makes are the book's true gifts to its reader.

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