Quotidian details of an apparently perfect domestic life spell suspense in Berne's second novel (after A Crime in the Neighborhood), set in the small New England town of New Aylesbury. Mirella Cook-Goldman works for a Boston law firm; her husband, Howard, is an architect who works at home. Their two young children, five-year-old Pearl and toddler Jacob, mill about their lovely colonial house. But this pleasant surface shows cracks: Pearl is temperamental and Jacob developmentally slow; Mirella and Howard talk past one another—he resents her long work hours, and she feels distanced from her family. Both are harboring major secrets. Their new nanny, Randi, is young and energetic—she cooks, cleans and devises games for the children. In theory, Mirella and Howard should have more time to spend with each other, but it soon becomes evident that their problems run deeper than lack of intimacy. Things further disintegrate when Mirella and Howard realize that hyperefficient Randi might be too possessive and not quite what she seems. Berne is an assured writer and is at her best with careful, observant descriptions of family life. The novel is less successful at providing an emotional center—the characters often seem like studiously drawn archetypes—and the jacked-up dramatic scenes toward the end are forced. But a sense of the fragility and also resilience of our everyday existence lingers after the final page. Agent, Colleen Mohyde. (May 25)
Forecast: Berne's first novel won the Orange Prize in the U.K., was a
New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the
Los Angeles Times and the Edgar Allan Poe first fiction awards—all of which will promote name recognition. Selling to fans of Sue Miller and Alice Hoffman should help build sales.