The Notebook of Lost Things

Megan Staffel, Author Soho Press $23 (224p) ISBN 978-1-56947-160-9

The intensity of Staffel's graphic first chapter, in which one of the protagonists guillotines a chicken, stands in contrast to the rest of this mild novel dealing with death and renewal among a group of sympathetic, small-town characters. It's been two years since the death of Helene Hugel's mother, Uta, a German survivor of the Dresden bombing. At the age of 39, Helene is still living in the once-prosperous farming town of Paris, N.Y., with ""Uncle"" William Swick, who took the family in when they arrived in America after WWII and later became Uta's lover. Searching for meaning in her own life, most directly through her habit of ""inventing mysteries"" or elaborating stories about ordinary people and events and persuading her boyfriend, Harry, to play along, Helene finds a notebook in which Uta catalogued her memories of the things she lost in Dresden. What little the reader sees of the notebook text is intriguing, but Staffel diminishes its impact by interweaving Uta and Helene's history with a substantial subplot featuring Stella Doyle, an impoverished Mexican-American teenager with an obese, alcoholic mother. Desperate about her mother's condition, Stella pawns the kitchen appliances and takes her to Chicago for acupuncture weight-loss therapy. The two plots don't quite fit together, even if the characters are connected by a few degrees of separation, but Staffel (She Wanted Something Else; A Length of Wire) deftly and tenderly weaves her cycle-of-life theme into an affecting narrative. (Aug.)