Picks and Pans Review: Seventh Heaven

updated 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/03/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alice Hoffman

Suburbia. Infidelity. Teenage sex. Ghosts. Telepathy. Witchcraft.

What's a nice author like Hoffman doing in a novel like this?

For one thing, she's turning a throwaway genre—suburban domestic fiction—into a forum for a meditation on a compulsion many, perhaps all of us, share: the desire to carve out a universe of our own, one whose rules we control, however small it may be.

The best example in this novel is Billy Silk, so disheartened by his parents' divorce and inability to cope with his real 8-year-old world that he is determined to make himself invisible. But Billy's mother, Nora, wants to define her own life too, moving herself, her infant son, James, and Billy into I a Long Island suburb where, in 1959, intact families are the ruling tribe. There she sets herself, in her inappropriately sexy clothes and dangerously single situation, selling Tupperware with fierce dedication and trying to get to the next minute without meeting any new obstacles.

Hoffman keeps the point of view shifting (too much, perhaps, when we see things through the eyes of a German shepherd). She offers up thoughts of, among others, Joe Hennessy, the cop who lives across from Nora and is painfully smitten with her; Ace McCarthy, the 17-year-old who is alienated from his straitlaced father; Donna Durgin, who one day up and disappears, leaving her husband and three children to start a new life; and Jackie McCarthy, Ace's older brother, whose shame at being caught in a rare display of compassion leads to tragedy.

In such novels as White Horses and Illumination Night, Hoffman has dabbled in vague mysticism. Seventh Heaven makes greater use of the supernatural—or the allure of the supernatural—without compromising her insight into human behavior.

Here, for instance, is Ace, who with his dog, Rudy, believes he has just seen a pair of red high-heeled shoes that belonged to a now-dead high-school classmate (she was also the dog's mistress) walk down a street on their own and vanish: "Rudy whined, then he tilted his head back and made a soft howling sound, and the howl went right through Ace, it cut him in half. There were stars in the sky now, and the lights in living rooms along Hemlock Street were turned on. Ace sat where he was for a little while longer, and by the time he got off the curb and headed back to his parents' house, he knew he didn't live there anymore."

Ace does some growing up, as does Billy, but this isn't a coming-of-age novel, except in the sense that everyone is always coming of age. It is an oddly optimistic, touching meditation on weaknesses and strengths of the sense of self, and a beautifully told story. (Putnam, $19.95)

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