February 07, 2011 12:00 PM

The Red Garden

by Alice Hoffman |

REVIEWED BY SUE CORBETT

People PICK

NOVEL

Hoffman’s latest is an absorbing portrait of a town, told through its unforgettable people. The fictional Blackwell, Mass., was founded in 1750 by Hallie Brady, a determined young bride whose foolish husband brings her west from Boston to resettle as winter is settling over the Berkshires. Her story, like the other townspeople’s told here, is tinged with the author’s signature magic: Hallie befriends the bears and cultivates a garden in which everything, even the green beans, blooms in crimson. The town’s tale bounds forward in generational leaps, using touchstones from American history to ground the surreal happenings: Johnny Appleseed plants an orchard on his way to Ohio; Emily Dickinson wanders away from Mount Holyoke and onto a Blackwell porch. Chapters read like complete short stories, often propelled by a mounting sense of dread, but also subtly laying the foundation for the next episode. The result is a masterful study of how small towns have changed over three centuries, while their residents’ concerns about love and loss have not.

You Know When the Men Are Gone

by Siobhan Fallon |

REVIEWED BY ANNE LESLIE

STORIES

Combat stress is well documented, but we know much less about how soldiers and the women they leave behind navigate the battlefield of love. In this collection of linked short stories, Fallon, the wife of an army major, provides poignant portraits of lovers struggling to keep relationships intact through deployments, loneliness and the strain of reunion. Helena welcomes back her wounded husband before telling him she wants to separate. Kailani insists Manny is cheating despite his passionate denials by telephone from Iraq. On leave, Moge disappoints his girlfriend because he can’t stop thinking about Baghdad. In prose that’s brave and honest, Fallon demonstrates that whether you’re a soldier or someone who loves one, war makes it hard to feel safe-even when you’re at home.

Separate Beds

by Elizabeth Buchan |

REVIEWED BY ROBIN MICHELI

NOVEL

This domestic drama is set in London, but readers Stateside will immediately recognize the Nicholson family’s woes: a long-married couple’s bitter disappointments, the strains of caring for multiple generations within a household, the emotional and financial devastation of losing a job. The narrative occasionally veers toward soap opera-even a stray dog who wanders into the picture is a victim of abuse-but maudlin it isn’t. Buchan keeps things lively and true with her spot-on observations, richly drawn characters and a dry British humor that proves even the most hellish predicaments can be entertaining.

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