Picks and Pans Review: Lives of the Saints

by Nancy Lemann

Reading Lemann’s fiction is like walking around a big crowd on a city sidewalk trying to peer through to see what everyone is looking at. She provides snatches of action, glimpses of plot, fits and starts of chronological background. The result is an irresistible arousal of curiosity. Lemann, 28, is from New Orleans, and it’s easy to interpret part of her first novel as a parable that accuses the American South of a kind of lovable indolence. Her heroine, Louise Brown, a young law-office clerical worker, is in love with Claude Collier, a kind, wise and gentle but feckless man who tells her, “Love is like a garden. It starts out all scrappy and puny, but then you nurture it and then it blooms. It takes about fifty years, like anything else, but finally it blooms.” This is a novel of images, not events, and Lemann’s writing makes the book seem far wordier than its 144 pages would suggest. But she can write the sort of vivid passage that makes a reader do a double take, as she does when Louise muses, “The Defeat and Humiliation of the South is a true thing. Among the Yankees I have known, I only met one who had the grace to apologize to me about the War.” (Knopf, $13.95)

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