May 09, 2005 12:00 PM

By Alice Hoffman

[STARS 3.5]

The power of words is a lesson the narrator of Hoffman’s 16th novel learns as a child. “They burn your tongue the moment they’re spoken, and you can never take them back. They bruise and bake and come back to haunt you,” Hoffman’s protagonist (a nameless librarian) tells us in the opening passage of this lush tale of loss and redemption. Hoffman does a masterful job in weaving fairy-tale elements into the fabric of her contemporary characters’ lives: After her mother dies, the heroine locks herself in an isolating silence and becomes an expert on a single subject—death—while her brother retreats into the comfort of logic and order and becomes a meteorology professor.

Her cold shell is shattered when, after moving from New Jersey to Florida following the death of her grandmother, she is struck by lightning. Deprived of the ability to perceive the color red and lamenting the sudden synchronicity of her inner and outer worlds (“All I saw was ice; all I felt was the cold of my own ruined self”), she seeks out a fellow lightning-strike survivor. Their passionate affair is the start of her slow journey toward a semblance of happily ever after.

Hoffman’s use of language is nothing less than stellar. Whether evoking the sultry landscape of southern Florida or the layers of ice around the librarian’s heart, Hoffman reminds us how little distance there is between magic and mundane.

FICTION

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