Venus, Kansas, is the kind of town where, after a funeral, neighbors bring a pot of baked beans to the home of the bereaved. It's also the setting of West of Venus, a funny, breezy, and deeply knowing first novel.
To a passing stranger, the restaurant where Holly Parker—the book's feisty, sympathetic heroine—works as a waitress might seem like an ordinary truck stop. In fact the Hearth is a hotbed of frustrated love and misdirected passion. Between orders, Holly is having an affair with her boss and fending off the tentative advances of the town veterinarian, even as she begins falling in love with a kindly state trooper named Gene. Meanwhile, Owen, Holly's 16-year-old son, is romantically involved with his former sixth-grade teacher. And Marvelle, Holly's best friend, is recovering from the shock of her husband's suicide.
Troy lets her complicated (yet perfectly ordinary) men and women reveal themselves through spirited, plausible dialogue. She is smart about the lengths to which we go to keep ourselves unhappy, about the emotional risks we take by being fully alive, and about the glorious, almost divine strength and resilience with which we humans, after falling from grace, can pick ourselves up and keep going. (Random House, $23)