Picks and Pans Review: False Starts

updated 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/10/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Terri McFerrin Smith

The focal point of this often absorbing first novel is Mara, a young woman of about 20 who leaves her family in the Midwest and drifts into Missoula, Mont. There she drifts into an idle sort of relationship with a farmer-mechanic-hunter and general ne'er-do-well, Mac. Mara is maddeningly selfless and unassertive. Her life seems to be only the residual of the lives around her, and the title refers to her increasingly determined efforts to break out of her self-imposed emotional exile. The appeal of the book will be directly related to how much a reader enjoys filling in a story's details. Smith writes sketchily, in splashes of description: "An edge of light crossed their faces. The girl blinked. In the night, their breath condensed on the windows. A drop of moisture rolled toward the sill. A planter revolved overhead. A chill touched her shoulder. The girl turned toward the boy. Her fingers caught in his auburn hair. She liked the warm, damp smell of their sleep. She closed her eyes." There's something alluring about her style. It's like watching a rapid-fire slide show—a quiet argument, a deer hunting trip, an abortion—that generates a surprising impact. Smith, an ex-reporter who lives in Kansas City, Mo., packs in a lot of dream sequences for a 208-page book, and it's hard to keep the chronology and geography clear. It's also distracting that while the story is usually told from Mara's point of view, at a few moments Mac's thoughts are revealed—without showing much of what goes on in his head. Mara, however, is a precisely expressed character whose hard-earned growth is so satisfying because she is such a convincing personality. As she changes, the writing does too. At the end Smith can rattle off a funny list of men who are courting Mara, by this time a single mother and college student: "A labor organizer who read old newspapers like novels supplied Mara with caps and mittens from the university's lost and found. A divorced philosophy major writing a thesis on Hamlet plied Mara with coffee. A doctoral candidate in psychology arranged for a sitter and cooked Mara a candle-lit meal. Mara even knew a sad Marxist with a vasectomy." Romantics who like endings with lovers strolling in the sunset will be disappointed; those intrigued by human behavior and people who can write about it will be absorbed. (Knopf, $17.95)

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