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MOTHERKIND By Jayne Anne Phillips; Alfred A. Knopf: 292 pp., $24

FIERCE INVALIDS HOME FROM HOT CLIMATES By Tom Robbins; Bantam: 416 pp., $27.50

VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE By Paulo Coelho; HarperCollins: 210 pp., $24

DEATH OF A HORNET And Other Cape Cod Essays By Robert Finch; Counterpoint: 270 pp., $24

May 21, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

"Black Tickets" and "Machine Dreams," just two of Jayne Anne Phillips' books written decades ago, were path breaking and passing strange. Both dispensed entirely with the traditional chapter and narrative, not to mention the traditional domestic subjects written about by women and published by men. They were violent and angry and sad, adamantly punctuated, spare. And here she is, my childhood hero, writing a novel that is equally strange because of its very plainness and simplicity. It's a deceptively quiet story about a young mother, Kate, whose own mother is dying of cancer and has come to live in her daughter's house. It's about how much strength it takes to be a mother and daughter and wife. Phillips hammers this home using a barrage of detail, the slow drip of everyday life. It's also about the many ways of mothering: a procession of nannies and helpers and nurses who enter all kinds of families, not just the very wealthy. Spelling all this out is a political act: We normally relegate these tedious details to such magazines as Redbook or Working Mother. Phillips gives them dignity and weight.

FIERCE INVALIDS HOME FROM HOT CLIMATES By Tom Robbins; Bantam: 416 pp., $27.50

Another childhood hero! His earlier novels, particularly "Another Roadside Attraction" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," were antidotes to D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce and even Virginia Woolf (I've just been struck by lightning.) Tom Robbins was and is the Club Med of literature. Besides which, he is the father (in this century) of all nose-thumbers, including that mere sprat of a rebel, Dave Eggers. He is also the inspiration for disreputable treaders of the line between thriller and literature, such as Dave Barry and Carl Hiaasen. Robbins is a martini mixer whose books must include the following ingredients: nubile girls (a little hard to swallow here, said females being 12 and up), Feds, drugs, artifacts and travel to exotic places. In "Fierce Invalids," we have a 36-year-old CIA agent named Switters; his 16-year-old stepsister named Suzy (first noticed at 12), whom he drools over on and off line; a trip to the Peruvian Amazon; a little cocaine, some other altitude-inducing drugs, including LSD (fed in experiments to CIA agents in the '60s). Maybe I'm older and the ride is too bumpy; maybe his writing hasn't changed enough over the years. I read Robbins fondly, nonetheless, hoping it will bring the same sense of adventure and silliness that "Another Roadside Attraction" unleashed so many years ago.

VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE By Paulo Coelho; HarperCollins: 210 pp., $24

Dr. Igor, chief resident of a mental hospital outside Lubliana, has a theory that insanity is caused by too much vitriol, commonly called bitterness. The cure, he theorizes, is an awareness of life. You must wake the patient up. When Veronika, 24, is brought in for an attempted suicide, Dr. Igor can really test his theory. He tells Veronika that she has done irreparable damage to her heart and now has only five days to live. In those five days, spent in the company of other inmates, Veronika makes friends, gets religion and falls in love. "When I took the pills," she says, "I wanted to kill someone I hated. I didn't know that other Veronikas existed inside me, Veronikas that I could love." In this novel and in his previous bestseller, "The Alchemist," Paulo Coelho's writing has a lot of space in it, fable-like, as though you could fill your own name and history into the blanks, and the story, for better or worse, might prove to be your own. It makes elusive prey for critics, since the novel is more like a mirror than a book. Coelho's structures are strong enough, however, to act as frames.

DEATH OF A HORNET And Other Cape Cod Essays By Robert Finch; Counterpoint: 270 pp., $24

Robert Finch is a master of the gentle art of observation. Many of the pieces in this collection of essays on Cape Cod wildlife--scrubby pine-oak woods, phoebes, wrens, moon jellies, pilot whales and thrushes--are about patience. "So often the animals we observe," he writes, "do not seem to be doing much of anything at all, as though they wished to pretend in front of us that their existence is merely a matter of assent, and only we were thrown out of the garden." In or out, nature writing like this can remind us of senses we barely use anymore. And Finch is a giddy anthropomorphizer--a spider playing with its prey or a personal translation of a bird's song; these "fictions or metaphors" are, he writes, a kind of intimacy. What worries Finch most is that so many of his pieces "celebrate things that no longer are or have become distorted out of all recognition," another reason to see what he sees and walk with him awhile.

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