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Skylight Confessions A Novel Alice Hoffman Little, Brown: 266 pp., $24.99

January 07, 2007|Jane Ciabattari | Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collection "Stealing the Fire" and a contributor to the National Book Critics Circle's blog Critical Mass.

WHEN Alice Hoffman published her gritty first novel, "Property Of," she had the backing of literary heavyweights -- writers Albert J. Guerard and Maclin Bocock Guerard on the West Coast and editor Ted Solataroff on the East Coast. The year was 1977; Hoffman was in her mid-20s. "Property Of" told the story of a 17-year-old loner who sets her sights on a gang leader and ends up trying to kick heroin as well as her love jones. From the first page, it was clear that Hoffman was a talented quick-sketch artist, a natural storyteller and a romantic at heart: "Snow was falling and the moon was howling light onto the Avenue. It was a night for skidding tires and orphans on the street."

Since then, Hoffman has written 16 novels, two short-story collections and eight books for children and young adults, plus many screenplays. Her books are magnets for movie options; four have made it to the screen so far, including "Practical Magic" with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as perky witches and "Aquamarine" about a teenage mermaid.

Hoffman draws many of her themes from fairy tales and much of her lyrical vocabulary from nature, especially the spare coastal landscapes of the Atlantic Northeast. Full moons rise and fall in her work as regularly as heaving bosoms in a bodice-ripper. In "The Probable Future," the Sparrow girls, descendants of a woman burned as a witch in Colonial times, are always born in March, "once the leaves began to bud, once the Blue Star crocus unfolded.... " "Second Nature" posits a "Beauty and the Beast"-type of romance between a man raised by wolves and the woman who hides him in her home. And the masterful "The River King," set along the muddy, often flooded Haddan River, opens with an image of a monstrous storm, "with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales." Images of roses are scattered throughout the book as a fragile counterpoint to all that water.

"Skylight Confessions," Hoffman's new novel, takes us down familiar paths. It is a fairy tale imbued with the intense emotional undercurrents of adolescence and haunted by loss and failures of love. The novel opens on the day 17-year-old Arlyn Singer, a Long Island ferryboat captain's daughter, buries her father. During his last, long illness, the usually silent captain told her the tale of a tribe that lived across the water in Connecticut and could sprout wings and fly away in the face of disaster. People in the tribe seemed normal, but when a ship went down or a fire raged, they revealed their special nature, he said.

Arlie is fetching, with red hair that reaches to her waist and 74 freckles on her face. On the day of her father's funeral, she promises herself that the first man who walks down the street will be her one love and that she will be true to him as long as he is true to her. Enter John Moody, a Yale architecture student, who shows up on her doorstep within hours of her pact and declares, "I'm lost." She invites him to stay the night and he is ever after in her thrall.

John proves to be a cold, withdrawn husband. Arlie gives birth to a son, Sam, who becomes a troubled boy. Arlie is convinced that she and Sam are in the wrong place with the wrong man. But in Hoffman's universe, she cannot escape her fate. The young couple moves into a home that John's father designed, a glass house set in the Connecticut woods known as the Glass Slipper. It is impractical: "Glass needed constant care.... Rain splatters, sticky sap, falling leaves, pollen." At 24, distanced from her husband, Arlie begins an affair with the window cleaner, George Snow, while Sam begins showing further signs of imbalance. He puts soot and glue in his father's good shoes; collects dead things, including birds that have crashed into the windows; and stabs his fingers with a pin to stop having scary thoughts.

Committed to her son, Arlie breaks off with George, who leaves a strand of pearls under the boxwood. John finds them and presents them to Arlie as his own birthday gift, but she knows the truth: "It was as though the pearls had grown outside their house, seeds planted in the earth, to arise milky as onionskin. Arlie looped them around her neck. Let that fool John think they'd appeared like magic, growing out of the earth or dropped from the sky by a red-winged hawk."

The pearls are a supernatural touchstone, turning a pale oyster yellow during the early days of Arlie's pregnancy with Blanca, a daughter she names with George Snow in mind, and a strange black tone after she undergoes radiation for breast cancer diagnosed at an advanced stage. Unable to cope, John begins an affair with the next-door neighbor, Cynthia. Just before her death, Arlie asks 6-year-old Sam to hide the pearls for his baby sister. She also takes Sam to the roof of the glass house and tells him her father's story about the tribe that can sprout wings and fly. Arlie is dead at 25, but continues to haunt her family.

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