Picks and Pans Review: The Gardens of Kyoto

updated 06/18/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/18/2001 AT 01:00 AM EDT

By Kate Walbert

In this quaintly told coming-of-age novel, middle-aged narrator Ellen recounts key moments in her life to a daughter we never come to know. But we learn a good bit about two men from Ellen's past.

Cousin Randall, a long-lashed lad of 17, gets shipped off to fight in World War II. His story is "so predictable," as even Ellen admits, "the boy leaves for war; the boy dies." Despite descriptions meant to show that his sensitivity placed him above other mortals (he loved books, especially one with the same title Walbert has used for hers), he comes across as merely a sainted cipher.

Better drawn is Henry, Ellen's lover. His letters from the front during the Korean War are involving, but he, too, meets an untimely end—not from battle wounds but emotional ones. Using his breakdown and more of yesteryear's untalked-about topics (premarital sex and wife beating), the narrator pointedly reminds her offstage daughter that the world was quite a different place not so long ago. (Scribner, $24)

Bottom Line: Well-tended but doesn't quite bloom

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