By Nora Gallagher
Pantheon, 222 pp., $22
By Claire Berlinski
Ballantine, 256 pp., $24.95
By Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday, 358 pp., $25.95
The Alexandria Link
By Steve Berry
Ballantine, 462 pp., $25.95
These four novels range from the sublime to the absurd, but they all turn on secrets, small and large.
Nora Gallagher's "Changing Light," her gracefully written, intelligent first novel, is set in the summer of 1945, in New Mexico, in and around Los Alamos, where scientists are working on the final details of a top-secret project to build a bomb -- they call it "the gadget" -- that will end World War II.
Eleanor Garrigue, a successful artist, has left her manipulative, resentful husband in New York and is living alone in a small adobe house, trying to capture the spare beauty of the New Mexican landscape in abstract paintings. One evening she finds a man lying near the river. He's feverish, delirious, muttering in a language that sounds like German. She wants to take him to the hospital. "No doctors," he says. The man's name is Leo Kavan, although Eleanor doesn't learn this for some time. He is a neutron physicist who has fled Los Alamos after witnessing a fatal radiation accident, an experience that crystallized all his doubts about the bomb project.
Leo can't tell Eleanor who he is without placing her in danger. Even as she and Leo fall in love, she has no inkling of the secrets he keeps. And she has her own secrets too. "Changing Light" is a beautifully crafted story, thoughtfully conceived, written with unusual emotional precision and moral clarity.
Claire Berlinski deftly blends comedy, intrigue, and romance in "Lion Eyes," her second novel, a cleverly constructed story about self-delusion and betrayal. According to a short preface, the plot was inspired by an extended e-mail correspondence with an admirer of "Loose Lips," Berlinski's first novel, about a female CIA trainee. "Lion Eyes," she explains, is an attempt to reconstruct, "to my own satisfaction, how I, an intelligent, well-educated, professional woman in my thirties," became "powerfully in the thrall" of a man who, as it turned out, was not whom she imagined him to be.
It's unclear where reality leaves off and fiction begins, not that it matters. The fictional narrator, a Paris-based American writer who happens to be named Claire Berlinski, receives an e-mail from Arsalan, an Iranian archeologist who has read the first chapter of "Loose Lips" on the Internet and asks for her help in obtaining a copy of the book. Claire obliges, which leads to more e-mail exchanges. At Arsalan's suggestion, Claire agrees to exchange apartments with a colleague of his who lives in Istanbul, where she meets Sally, a CIA agent who wants an introduction to Arsalan. Claire reluctantly brings them together after she moves back to Paris, and arranges a dinner party for all her oddball friends. It's a disaster, hilariously described. Berlinski has created a wonderful supporting cast of eccentrics whose capacity for creative self-delusion mirrors that of her narrator. Her eloquent descriptions of Paris and Istanbul add a lovely dimension to this most entertaining novel.
In "Family Tree," prolific romance novelist Barbara Delinsky moves beyond that genre to explore a big subject, racism, through an intimate family story. Hugh and Dana Clarke, a wealthy suburban Boston white couple, are surprised when Dana gives birth to a baby girl, Elizabeth, who has a distinctly African-American appearance. Hugh's parents refuse to believe the baby is his. The Clarkes are Mayflower descendants, their lineage a matter of precise record. His father, a historian, is writing a book about it. Dana's ancestry is more obscure. She never knew her father. After her mother drowned she was raised by her grandmother. Dana assumes that little Lizzie's appearance must come from African-Americans on her unknown father's side of the family. Hugh insists on a paternity test. He suspects that Dana has been unfaithful. It would be unfair to reveal too many more details of the plot, but potential readers may assume that nothing is as simple as it appears to be. Various family secrets are aired by the time everything gets sorted out; characters are forced to consider their prejudices, casual assumptions, and hypocrisy. Readers, too.
"The Alexandria Link" is a bloated yet fast-moving formulaic thriller in "The DaVinci Code" mode, with Israelis, Saudis, Americans, a cartel of international billionaires, and mercenary evildoers in murderous pursuit of an ancient manuscript that could change the map of the Middle East and shake the foundations of the world's three major monotheistic religions. Former US secret agent Cotton Malone, having survived Steve Berry's previous write-by-the-numbers thriller, "The Templar Legacy," is enjoying his new life as a rare-book dealer in Copenhagen when he learns that his son has been kidnapped. Cotton has 72 hours to deliver the "Alexandria Link" or his son will be killed. That link is a scholar named George Haddad, the one person who knows the location of the lost library of Alexandria, Egypt, destroyed sometime between the first and seventh centuries AD. The circumstances of its demise are unknown, although there are a number of theories. Berry's fictional premise is that its contents were removed to a secret location by a mysterious group called the Guardians, who have cared for it through the ages. Haddad knows that the library contains an ancient version of the Old Testament indicating that the Promised Land is actually located in what is now Saudi Arabia. A great deal of hoo-ha ensues as Cotton plays shoot 'em up with agents of various factions intent on suppressing and/or possessing the ancient document. "The Alexandria Link" has short chapters, simple language, minimum character development, glamorous locations, nonstop action, gunplay galore, dead bodies all over the place. It reads more like a movie treatment than a novel, probably for good reason.
Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.