cover image A SONG I KNEW BY HEART


Bret Lott, . . Random, $24.95 (320pp) ISBN 978-0-375-50377-1

Praised for his portrait of a strong-willed mother raising a Down's syndrome child in Jewel , Lott returns to the notion that some burdens are in fact blessings in this quiet, tender novel about what it means to go home again. After her only son, Mahlon, is killed in a car accident, widow Naomi Robinson is sure of one thing: she must leave New England, where she and her husband settled after WWII, and head home to South Carolina. In trying to recapture the joy of her childhood, Naomi hopes to find serenity and redemption, a process hampered by a 50-year-old secret she's kept hidden from all but her best friend. To Naomi's surprise, Mahlon's wife, Ruth, vows to join her. The book unfolds slowly, as mother and wife cope with their shared grief amid a loving, working-class family they barely knew they had. Based on the biblical story of Ruth, Lott's novel doesn't pivot on plot turns but rather on small observations about the power of mementos and rituals to give one a sense of history and belonging, and about how forgiveness can weigh the heart down more than guilt. At times, the writing shines with pathos—as when Naomi recognizes that "[l]oss was alive down here too.... You'd have to be a fool to believe otherwise, to think that loss lived only where you left it"—while at other times, it feels greeting card–like, with plenty of repetitive, treacly telegraphic paragraphs ("Eli. Her husband. Her love"). Lott misses the opportunity to make Ruth more interesting; she comes across as a one-dimensional martyr, beautiful, devoted and boring. The blessing is that readers will find it easy to identify with Naomi and Ruth's tragic loss, and aren't likely to notice. Agent, Marion Young. (Apr. 20)