The Mineral Palace

Heidi Julavits, Author Putnam Adult $23.95 (326p) ISBN 978-0-399-14622-0
As they drive from Minnesota to her physician husband's new job in Pueblo, Colo., in 1934, Bena Jonssen encounters on-the-run bank thief Bonnie Parker (of Bonnie and Clyde fame), who gives her a tarnished silver charm. This surreal event, and others that follow, invest this compelling, though not flawless, debut novel with a dreamlike immediacy. The Depression, the drought-parched dust bowl landscape, her newborn son's strange lethargy and her knowledge that her husband, Ted, is an inveterate drinker and philanderer, cast grim shadows over Bena's attempts to come to terms with her future. Adding to these burdens are repressed memories of her domineering brother's death when they were young. Outwardly assured, Bena is subject to a surreptitious emotional tic: she obsessively adds and combines numbers--a birth date, her son's measurements, etc.--to divine signs and portents. Bena wins a job on the local newspaper, where she covers the numerous civic clubs that constitute social activism in the economically depressed community. One such project, a plan to restore the Mineral Palace, a crumbling edifice built in 1891 to express the town's boastful pride, when silver mining was its chief industry, proves to have a painful epiphanic significance as Bena finally confronts the fears and traumas that have constricted her life. Meanwhile, she has fallen in love with Red Grissom, a soulful, sensitive rancher with a penchant for rescuing lost causes, and has met a Dickensian cast of townspeople, each of whom is festering with doleful secrets. Julavits can be a magician with language, spinning brilliant metaphors and investing descriptive scenes with almost palpable dimensionality. Her enthusiasm with words sometimes spills over into hyperactive verbiage, however, resulting in such forced images as ""bacon thinner than a wedding veil."" Several key scenes are shriekingly melodramatic, and prosthetic limbs turn up all too frequently among the eccentric characters (and animals). While Julavits can justly be criticized for overwriting, however, her narrative has the drive to keep readers hooked. Agent, Henry Dunow. Rights sold in Denmark, France, Germany, the U.K., Italy, Spain, Sweden and the Netherlands. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 07/31/2000
Release date: 08/01/2000
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