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One overeats, the other doesn't

Winner of the

National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather

By Jincy Willett

St. Martin's, 323 pp., $23.95

Jincy Willett's new novel, "Winner of the National Book Award," celebrates the intersection between fiction and real life, fat and thin, kindness and cruelty, life and death. As its subtitle suggests, the tone is largely humorous, yet Willett also works hard to include the poignancy of true emotion emanating from family relationships, primarily sisterhood and marriage.

The narrator, Dorcas Mather, is the head librarian in Frome, R.I. (Because of her name, one of her regular jobs at the library is to erase graffiti such as "Dork from Ork" from library property.) Dorcas has a twin sister, Abigail, who is the subject of a book about the events leading up to her murder of her husband, Conrad Lowe, who is Abigail's first true love, even though, unlike Dorcas, she has had many lovers, including one who fathered her daughter, Anna, when Abigail was only 16.

The premise of the book has Dorcas trying to decide which section of the library should contain the book about her sister (true crime or biography). The backdrop is an imminent hurricane, which has residents of what Dorcas calls "The Panic State" running to the supermarket for supplies.

The book about her sister is called "In the Driver's Seat: The Abigail Mather Story," and it has been penned by Hilda DeVilbiss, wife of Guy DeVilbiss, whom Dorcas refers to as "an authentic genius artist" and whose collection of confessional poems has, in fact, received a National Book Award. Conrad is Guy's former Harvard roommate, whom Dorcas describes upon first meeting as "tall, whippet-thin, predatory." It is the final adjective that proves the most important, of course, as Conrad is besotted by Abigail's reputation as the town tramp, despite the fact that she is extremely overweight. Abigail responds by falling immediately in love with Conrad; "when he spoke her name," Dorcas tells us, "she was transformed with joy, like a mentioned dog."

Conrad's personality is perhaps best exemplified by the gift he bestows upon his fiance at her wedding shower: a Health O Meter Professional Dial Bathroom Scale, doctor-style. He informs the shower guests, as well as the bride-to-be, that he doesn't "intend to have a fat freak wife." Abigail responds with aplomb, heroically getting on the scale rather than shrinking from it, and although she proceeds to lose her extra weight and then some as the novel progresses, it doesn't bring about the happy ending Conrad envisioned.

Willett weaves portions of Hilda's book throughout Dorcas's narrative, until both stories become one when Dorcas recounts the phone call she receives from Abigail, informing her that Conrad is dead. "It was an accident, she said. I backed over him.

"We were twins. I could ask her anything. I took a break, but before I could put the question, she said, 'Eight times.'

"Did we laugh then, in perfect unison? Barking like harpies? I don't remember. Yes, I do."

Abigail is sentenced to 20 years to life for killing her husband, and Hilda takes up her cause by making her the victim and heroine of "In the Driver's Seat." The self-appointed biographer writes, "Had we but known! Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these . . . 'YOU'RE DANGEROUSLY OVERWEIGHT.' "

Dorcas's response to the book -- to the whole long episode of her sister's involvement with Conrad -- is wry and often sarcastic, but she can also render genuinely moving moments, as when she is describing her sister's efforts not to overeat, denying herself nourishment, and going overboard in the other direction.

In a few places, these tonal shifts are not entirely successful. During the description of the initial meeting among the twins and Conrad, Dorcas says, "What he did to me that night, and many times thereafter, amounted, if such a thing were possible, to psychological rape." Shortly after, thinking of her "great Amazon bawd of a twin," Dorcas smiles at Conrad, "still afraid, but excited by the carnage to come."

And Dorcas's narrative is not only about her sister; we also get a glimpse of her own life and its priorities. She has channeled the passion that might have gone into love affairs into her affection for books, which are "holy objects to me," she tells us.

The only character who gets short shrift is Anna, who has been raised by the twins after Abigail was widowed as a teenager. Otherwise, Willett draws her characters in all their larger-than-life glory. "Winner of the National Book Award" may not win any awards, but readers who hunger for farce, satire, and clever writing will have been well fed by this book.

Jessica Treadway is the author of "Absent Without Leave" and "And Give You Peace." She teaches at Emerson College.

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