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A WOMAN UNKNOWN Voices From a Spanish Life By Lucia Graves; Counterpoint: 288 pp., $25

PRODIGAL SUMMER By Barbara Kingsolver; HarperCollins: 444 pp., $26

EINSTEIN IN LOVE A Scientific Romance By Dennis Overbye; Viking: 422 pp., $27.95

October 22, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

A WOMAN UNKNOWN Voices From a Spanish Life By Lucia Graves; Counterpoint: 288 pp., $25

The poet Robert Graves has been in danger, in the 15 years since his death, of being more read about than read. His famous life was fed by many deep springs: women, myth and the island of Majorca, where he lived with his family for 50 years. Shining out like a beacon from these books about Graves from photographs and text is the large-eyed figure of his daughter Lucia, born in 1943. Here finally is her memoir of growing up on Majorca, of her education in England, of her 26-year marriage to a Catalan musician and of the end of that marriage. Lucia remembers a childhood in which language was almost as important as food.

Robert and Beryl Graves moved to the Mediterranean island from Devonshire when Lucia was 3. She grew up speaking Majorcan in the village they lived in, Spanish in Palma, the capital, and English at home. "It was my world, and I understood it; I could see how things worked, how the lives of the village people blended in with the mountain, the farmland and the sea."

Her father is perhaps most famous for his lifelong hommage to matriarchy ("The White Goddess"), and Lucia tells the story of her childhood through the stories of women who inspired her: Blanca, the village midwife; Olga, her ballet teacher; Jimena, the housekeeper, and the Dominican sisters who taught her in the years of Franco and fascist nationalism. Her memories of difficult periods and times of change reveal a woman who has learned to open from pain, rather than shut down around it. Her vast experience enriches her language and logic.

"There were moments when I felt I had spent all my life as an in-between person," she writes, explaining how she became a translator (Lucia translated her father, Katherine Mansfield and Anais Nin into Spanish). "In attempting to evaluate and define the full meaning of a word in one language and find its nearest equivalent in another, I was making being an in-between person a virtue, or at least a service."

PRODIGAL SUMMER By Barbara Kingsolver; HarperCollins: 444 pp., $26

Barbara Kingsolver, you may have noticed, has very loyal readers. Her last novel, "The Poisonwood Bible," was much loved for the intricate, carefully researched world that she created but it was whined about for its length and persistence. Her dedication to the relationship between people and nature is universally admired. Which brings us to this new novel, written solely around that relationship. Following her divorce from her professor husband, the novel's main character, Deanna Wolfe, has lived in the mountains for two years studying coyotes for the Forest Service. She's in her 40s, out tracking one day, when Eddie Bondo, a bounty hunter, sneaks up on her and sure enough, she falls complainingly in love. She fights falling, but her banter has a brash-girl Disney feel to it. Kingsolver weaves each chapter with the lives of her characters, as she did in "Poisonwood Bible," but in this novel, the disparity between the characters you want to follow and the ones you don't is enough to throw the book off balance. It's hard to leave the bed of Deanna and Eddie in the cabin in the wilderness for the flat farmland and the life of Lusa (a moth-loving woman) down in Zebulon Valley. Women in this novel have totem animals that lead them through important transitions in their lives. Kingsolver writes well about the importance of independence: of women and men and animals and weeds. It's when they come together that integrity gets compromised, her character's and regrettably, the novel's. *

EINSTEIN IN LOVE A Scientific Romance By Dennis Overbye; Viking: 422 pp., $27.95

This is not the first time that I have read Dennis Overbye ("Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos") and thought that he was in love with watching his characters in love. The love-object often gets lost, as if it were less important than the importance of being in love. Love is, after all, a kind of rocket fuel that powers change, scientic or political. The irony, in this novel about Einstein's relationship with his first wife, Mileva Maric, a marriage that lasted from 1901 to 1918, is that Einstein never really seems to be in love. He falls deeply in love with relativity and equivalence and quantum theory and even gravity, but even when he cheats on Mileva (for example with his cousin Elsa, for whom he eventually left Mileva), he never seems in love with the love-object.

Overbye, as well, is more in love with Einstein in love with relativity that he is with Einstein pretending to be in love with Mileva or Marie (an early flirtation) or Elsa. "Einstein in Love" is a novel, I suspect, because Overbye cannot be certain about the sources of Einstein's inspiration the way he can be about the facts of Einstein's life. Still, love and science make a brilliant, dangerous, noncommittal match.

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