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Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking, 334 pp., $24.95

Elizabeth Gilbert is great at describing extreme states of feeling. All those highs and lows that other people fall back on calling ''indescribable," she describes with intense visual, palpable detail. She is the epic poet of ecstasy.

Having suffered through a punishing divorce, a torturing love affair, and a crushing depression, she set off with a one-year plan to ''thoroughly explore one aspect of myself . . . in a place that has traditionally done that one thing very well. . . . the art of pleasure in Italy, the art of devotion in India and, in Indonesia, the art of balancing the two."

During her four months in Rome, she became a master of ''bel far niente," ''the beauty of doing nothing." At first in an ashram in India, she resisted meditation, silence, stillness, emptiness, but she came to shed her skepticism and prudence and eventually experienced bliss. Everywhere she went, she made friends: a darkly handsome Roman who taught her Italian as she taught him English, at the ashram a crude but enlightened Texan who called her ''Groceries" for her hearty appetite, in Indonesia a Muslim deported from the United States who longed to talk about New York. As a friend -- and as a writer -- she is innocently trusting, generous, loving, and expressive.

A Taxonomy of Barnacles
By Galt Niederhoffer
St. Martin's, 367 pp., $24.95

Galt Niederhoffer is too smart for her own good. There are enough excellent ideas in this book to generate four novels. First, as the title suggests, Darwin's theory of evolution underpins much of the tale. The two families at the center of the story are named Barnacle and Finch -- Darwin's two most studied species. The Barnacles are six sisters, all with names beginning with B. In their luxurious apartment building live the Finch family with their identical twin brothers, Billy and Blaine. Competition among the sisters and between the two brothers will decide who is the fittest to survive and thrive.

Survival also drives the second plot: King Lear's ill-conceived contest for his daughters' love. Here the immensely rich Barnacle father sets a test for the girls, not who loves him best, but who will sustain his name and thus secure his fortune. Mistaken identity, marriage prospects, lovers' trysts, and Arden/Central Park retreats hark back to Shakespeare comedies. All these clever plots are difficult to maintain. The various romances of the marriageable girls and the Finch twins and several other suitors seem to interest Niederhoffer more than the paternal competition. So it is a surprise when the essentially chick-lit plots are interrupted by the Darwinian or Shakespearean tussles.

Niederhoffer, a speed achiever (a Harvard grad, she formed an independent movie production company and produced several award-winning films in her 20s), needs to slow down as a novelist and write one novel at a time.

NNNNN
By Carl Reiner
Simon & Schuster, 205 pp., $21

Carl Reiner, best known as a TV comedy writer, has written a novel that resembles a TV comedy: thin and mildly amusing.

Nat Noland, a novelist, is writing his version of the book of Genesis, focusing on the brothers Cain and Abel. This revised biblical story is presented in a few crude pages, interspersed into the much longer and no less crude story of Nat's brothers, who, initially unknown to him, are discovered in the course of the novel. They turn out to be identical, all successfully adopted. Nat uncovers unsavory stories involving his ''expectant mother crashing and dying in a ditch -- and a madman-rapist-doctor" who would ''deliver and sell the triplets he fathered."A fourth baby is found dead later, making the babies quadruplets.

None of this is very believable, which is forgivable in a comedy writer, but it's also not sufficiently exaggerated to have satiric heft or humorous impact. This is not forgivable in a writer with as much talent as Mr. Reiner.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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