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February 18, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

MANGOES AND QUINCE

By Carol Field

Bloomsbury: 250 pp., $24.95

Juicy is the best way to describe this novel. In the proud and popular tradition of novels with food--"Debt to Pleasure," "Like Water for Chocolate," "Babette's Feast" and others--"Mangoes and Quince" is a book that makes you hungry while you read. What are the ingredients? A lot of ginger, mangoes, quince, apricots, custards, coconut, curry, roasted nuts, a girl whose father ran away from Amsterdam to become a demigod in the tropics, her pet monkey, a beautiful mother who cooks and likes men and some Dutch people. But the main character, as in all books on food (even cookbooks like "The Joy of Cooking"), is desire. Desire gets messy sometimes, out of control, and that's what happens in "Mangoes and Quince": The structure gets a little jumpy, between the letters and the memories and the present tense. To compensate for lack of structure, Carol Field sometimes over-writes. But no mind. There's quite a bit of juicy sex and some good ideas for cooking too.

*

EVERYDAY PEOPLE

By Stewart O'Nan

Grove Press: 288 pp., $24

I like the fact that Stewart O'Nan, so accomplished and satisfying in his own right, dedicated this book to another writer who so obviously influenced him: John Edgar Wideman. It is beautiful proof that writers influence and challenge and do more than compete with one another for end caps at Barnes & Noble. Like Wideman's book, "Two Cities," "Everyday People" reveals an urban neighborhood. In O'Nan's case, it's East Liberty in Pittsburgh, Pa., an African American neighborhood. There's Chris, who has been paralyzed from the waist down in an accident; Vanessa, who is taking a class in African American history at a local college; Rashaan, their young son; and Miss Fisk, Vanessa's grandmother. There are many others, but the seed of the community in this novel is this family, with all its rough edges and broken branches. Beyond the family orbit are friends and other neighborhoods and political decisions that ignore need and history (for example, Miss Fisk's memories of the Ku Klux Klan), as studied by Vanessa and written by O'Nan, whose ear is low, low to the ground. "Maybe for a split second they see what you see," he says of commuters passing a memorial, but he may as well be talking about his own readers, "the dreams of a people that will not be denied, the sacrifices made in the name of progress, but that's just easy public TV jive. No one wants to go beyond their own feel-good bullshit. No one wants to know what it really means."

*

IN SUNLIGHT,

IN A BEAUTIFUL GARDEN

By Kathleen Cambor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux:

258 pp., $23

Novels that contain larger than life historical figures must shake up those lives in fiction's crystal ball, at least pretending to let them fall where they will, even though we already know the ending (it is, after all, historical). Otherwise the world of the novel becomes too Darwinian, too predetermined; the strong survive (their voices heard) while the weak are fertilizer (and die unrecorded). This is why the phrase "historical novel" makes us cringe. It implies a complicated shackling device that keeps the little people down. If you've got your ear to the ground, you can hear everyone. If not, why bother? You can read about it in People magazine.

In "In Sunlight, In a Beautiful Garden," Kathleen Cambor works hard at telling her story from many angles, a task made particularly difficult because the titans of industry are her historical players: Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and Andrew Mellon, figures who tend to dominate every stage they're placed on. It is their greed, their insistence on having a lake for their summer retreat in the Allegheny Mountains, that causes the South Fork dam to burst after a night of heavy rains, killing more than 2,200 people on Memorial Day in 1889 in what history books call the Johnstown flood. "As to mythologies among the club members about their mountain neighbors," Cambor writes of the relationship between the summer people and the locals, "there were none. Mythologies require curiosity and interest, and the members felt neither. Their train trip from South Fork to Pittsburgh was direct, the landscape beautiful. The presence of the other did not impinge on them. At the lake they led an unencumbered, peaceful life. A summer idyll. The life they felt they'd earned."

The lives that Cambor so carefully constructs or reconstructs, the relationships, repressed desires, unhealed hurts, lost children all rise throughout the novel to meet this day of disaster. It is the shifting scales and perspectives, between a family tragedy and a national tragedy, between personal greed and class greed, between a battlefield in a man's memory and a disaster of dead bodies that could have been avoided, that ratchet the novel forward, keep the characters dancing in the reader's mind.

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