Alice Hoffman, Author . Putnam $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-399-14802-6

Hyperbole is the hallmark of Hoffman's prose. As her 14th novel begins, readers meet Ethan Ford, reliable master carpenter, fire department volunteer and life-saving hero, perfect husband and all-round hunk. In a crescendo of overkill, Hoffman (The River King) identifies Ethan as "truly an extraordinary person." Readers may mutter "enough already," even while recognizing that such a glorious buildup means that Ethan is riding for a fall. But in this case, Hoffman's strategy is effective, because Ethan is suddenly arrested on suspicion of the rape and murder of teenager Rachel Morris 15 years earlier in Maryland. Ethan confesses to the crime, but says that he is now "a different man,'' who has redeemed himself through exemplary behavior. What this revelation means to his beautiful wife of 13 years, Jorie; his 12-year old son, Collie; his friends and admirers in the small community of Monroe, Mass.; and especially to Collie's friend, Kat Williams, who tipped off the police after she saw Ethan's photo on a TV crime blotter, allows the novel to investigate the themes of devotion, betrayal, guilt and forgiveness in trenchantly effective ways. Hoffman avoids the temptation of a feel-good ending, at the same time providing a sensitive assessment of the moral qualities constituting a good life. Throughout, her observations of the natural world are conveyed with gorgeous clarity and the supporting characters are roundly drawn. If the source of Ethan's monumental selfishness is never adequately explained, perhaps this is Hoffman's intention; evil exists, she suggests, and repentance is often not sufficient to earn true absolution. Literary Guild main selection; Doubleday Book Club featured alternate and Mystery Guild alternate; 14-city author tour. (July 23)

Forecast:Hoffman's books always lure a large audience, and since this novel, with issues worth pondering, is superior to some of her more whimsical efforts, it should do well right out of the gate.

Reviewed on: 06/04/2001
Release date: 07/01/2001
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