Edra Ziesk, Author . Algonquin $23.95 (288p) ISBN 1-56512-314-X

The appearance of a stranger in town may be a device that's launched a thousand plots, but Ziesk (Acceptable Losses) makes rather unconventional use of it in her second novel. Nell Maye has retreated from New York City to rural Vermont to make a fresh start in her grandparents' old house. She is going to teach music at a local high school and her husband, Billy, has plans to open a Mexican restaurant. An irresponsible jerk with a chip on his shoulder, Billy's a poor match for the quiet town, alienating their new neighbors within minutes of meeting them. Most of the other characters are loners: there's Lenny, a middle-aged widow looking after her mute teenaged grandson; James, the history teacher who takes an immediate shine to Nell; Fernando, who comes from New York to cook in Billy's restaurant; and Eli, a widower whose son, Land, is facing some grim accusations at school. Land's obnoxious friend, Casey, and Lenny's estranged son, Tal, are on hand to stir up trouble at every opportunity. Nell is ostensibly the main character, but she's merely a whiny catalyst; it's Lenny, with her combination of fortitude and vulnerability, who steals the show. Ziesk spends most of the novel creating friction among the neighbors, causing readers to wonder who is going to snap first. Unfortunately, she works too hard at manufacturing dread and red herrings. The overall pace, tantalizing and deliberate at first, starts to drag about halfway through, and the novel never quite regains momentum. But the potent and lyrical prose is consistently fine: Ziesk's powers of observation and insight are formidable. She renders each scene with meticulous detail, allowing her characters to reveal themselves as the tensions among them escalate. (Jan. 25)

Reviewed on: 10/22/2001
Release date: 01/01/2002
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