Anne Ursu, . . Hyperion/Theia, $22.95 (280pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-6778-3

First novelist Ursu comes off as an Alice Hoffman wannabe who doesn't quite make the grade. Like Hoffman, she creates a small community—here, the fictional Midwestern town of Clarence—and describes a dramatic event that causes several characters to undergo life changes. When a leak at a psychopharmaceutical factory spills a drug called deletrium into the atmosphere, strange psychological reactions afflict Clarence's residents. One by one, they are traumatized by memories of the past that they had previously buried. Bernie Singer, a widowed psych professor at local Mansfield University, is forced to remember the auto accident that killed his wife and left him to raise alone his precocious daughter, Sophie, now nine years old. Bernie's mother, Madeline, a well-known novelist who is now blocked, is disturbed by memories of her relationship with her dead husband. Susannah Korbet, who works at Madeline's retirement home, must deal with her guilt about her mother's illness, while her fiancé, a grad student whose specialty is memory studies, undergoes his own crisis. Ursu's what-if scenario is diverting to some degree, but the paint-by-numbers plot development soon becomes labored, and the relentlessly perky prose style calls attention to itself with too arch irony. The characters speak like robots who've never used a vernacular contraction, stiffly uttering "cannot" or "will not" or "do not" even in relaxed conversation, and the repetition of almost identical sentence patterns echoes the sing-song cadences of children's books. While the story is lightly engaging, Ursu never establishes the suspension of disbelief that Hoffman accomplishes with such dexterity. Agent, Lisa Bankoff. (Jan. 2)