August 06, 1990 12:00 PM

by Luanne Rice

This novel starts out promisingly: Maria Dark, famous archaeologist, leaves her glamorous Italian husband to return to the puritanical Connecticut town where she was raised. Almost immediately Maria senses that something is wrong. Her sister Sophie has grown fat and paranoid; she’s jumpy; she lies; she steals.

But when Maria confronts her mother—the snobbish Hallie—about Sophie, Hallie denies noticing anything. So does Peter, Sophie and Maria’s brother. Only Nell, Peter’s wife and Maria’s best friend, shares Maria’s concern. Is something rotten in Hatuquitit, or is Maria’s judgment clouded by envy of her sister’s seemingly idyllic marriage? Or is Maria simply out of it, having been so immersed in studying ancient cultures that she can’t understand the ways of provincial American people?

Stone Heart would be more interesting if it explored these questions and a middle-aged woman’s ambivalence about going home again. Instead, it becomes a quasi-suspense novel about domestic violence and child abuse, “as alarming as front-page headlines,” says the book-jacket hype.

Yes, Sophie and Gordon’s relationship is perverse, and yes, the conclusion is shocking, but the most alarming thing about this book is that Rice relies on obvious situations and cardboard characters. Hallie is a stereotypical distant mother; Duncan, the hometown boy with whom Maria has an affair, is a standard-issue New England sailor, rough-hewn but sweet; Nell is the saintly Melanie Wilkes of Gone with the Wind transplanted to Connecticut. Gordon, Maria discovers, is a wife beater because he was abused as a child. When Sophie is finally jailed for killing him, she becomes a cause célèbre for feminists. All this is straight off the front pages, all right, but Rice hasn’t made it much of a novel.

Rice, author of Crazy in Love, writes woodenly (“What she would say to Sophie she didn’t know”) and in clichés (“His message confused Maria and sent a chill down her spine”). She spends too much time describing what characters are feeling and too little showing it.

A subplot—Maria finds a murdered Indian squaw’s remains—seems intended as a counterpoint to the Dark family’s travails, but it too seems contrived. Rice probably meant to explore abusive relationships and “normal” people turning out to be monsters, but here again she doesn’t add any insight. We can learn as much from the daily paper. (Viking, $19.95)

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