October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

by Cathleen Schine

Book of the week

“Have you ever lost a friend?” begins Cathleen Schine’s fifth novel. “It is the saddest and most baffling experience. Jane Barlow Schwartz, 25, has anguished for ages over the loss of her first best friend (and cousin), Martha, who dropped her without explanation years earlier. “Even though I had made many friends in the interim,” Jane laments, “I could somehow not let go of that first real friendship.”

Schine (The Love Letter) provides an apt locale for Jane’s explorations of loss and change: the Galápagos Islands, where scientist Charles Darwin developed the theory of evolution in the 19th century. No sooner does she arrive, on a natural history tour, than she discovers that her guide is Martha—the same person who “had thrown me over, dumped, ditched, cut, cold shouldered, discarded, shelved, jettisoned and retired me.”

Evolution develops into both a humorous meditation on friendship and a clever send-up of the hyper-educated class. And while Jane’s obsessions lack the laugh-out-loud pleasures of Schine’s acclaimed Rameau’s Niece, this effort bears all the other hallmarks of her distinctive style: idiosyncratic characters; memorably wry and intelligent observations; brisk, witty writing.

At times, Schine’s attempts to wed the mysteries of friendship to Darwinian theory seem strained. And not everyone will share her fascination with Galápagos life and lore. Still, readers in search of playfully sophisticated yet thoroughly accessible storytelling will find themselves diverted by Jane’s outer and inner journeys. (Houghton Mifflin, $24)

Bottom Line: Classy, intelligent fun

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