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Picks and Pans Review: Easy Keeper

updated 11/02/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 01:00AM

by Mary Tannen

I New West of Easy Keeper, the requisite showdown occurs in an upholstery shop, a guy can name his nags Horse I and Horse II. and love is sparked by the birth of a lamb.

Transporting us to Priest Creek, Colo., near the Continental Divide, Tannen's third novel introduces us to the likable crowd making a life outside a not-quite-Aspen ski resort. Thirty-or fortysomething, they're dreamers from somewhere else, but unlike the coming condo owners, they've settled in and have long since lost their chic.

With gentle will and a good deal of sensitivity, Tannen tells a tale of friendship and coupling. The focal point is Lily, a sheep rancher whose leftover-hippie husband dies from cocaine abuse. This presents opportunities for Dusty, who writes stories about the town's romantic past for the local paper. Dusty has silently loved Lily for years but has settled for the role of best friend. Dixie, who found Colorado when "she drove to Ohio and turned left," is sexy and insecure unless there are men fighting over her, and she is currently being mistreated by a wrangler named Shane who baby-sits greenhorns on horseback pack trips.

Into their midst, Tannen injects a twist on the classic tall, dark, handsome stranger: an Easterner named Foster, a just divorced, former folk-singer who's now singing jingles. All it takes is a baby lamb at midnight to bring Lily and Foster together for a bicultural affair. Not that their progress isn't bumpy. Lily knows all there is to know about sheep, but human mating patterns are more a mystery to her.

Tannen skips from person to person, giving us a chance to inhabit the skins of each, to see the same incident through two sets of eyes. Her quick cuts often result in somebody's dangling precariously: At one point, Lily is temporarily left pinned to the snowy ground by her mule after a fall. Her writing is spare and evocative; you can almost feel your nose tingle in the crisp clear air, and you recognize the feelings of these eccentric and thoroughly believable characters.

An "easy keeper" is a sheep that doesn't eat much but produces a lot of meat. By that definition this 198-page novel—spirited and full of love—is itself an easy keeper. (Farrar, Straus Giroux, $21)

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