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FEBRUARY 28, 2000: 

Somewhere in France by John Rolfe Gardiner (Alfred A. Knopf), hardcover, $24

Scholars and fans of World War I will enjoy this historical novel about germ warfare and love. The story goes like this: an American doctor leaves his wife and family behind to volunteer his services in France during the Great War. Our hero meets a witchy French nurse with a Joan of Arc complex who moonlights as a crack bacteriologist in pursuit of a deadly fever spread by lice. He falls in love with her (surprise!). After the war, he leaves his family and divorces his wife to run off with the French germ queen in pursuit of cures and long-lasting love.

Dreadful cliché? Maybe. In an author's note, however, we learn that this story has been extracted from letters written to the author's mother from his father during WWI, and it turns out the old bastard really did run off with a French nurse. Can you say cheesy made-for-TV movie?

But seriously, aside from this soap opera drama, the author gives readers a useful glimpse into the putrid reality, not of the trenches, but of the sanitary limitations of the time. He also overcomes the cheese factor by portraying a complex protagonist in the American doctor. The doctor's desire to pursue the French nurse stems as much from his fascination for her self-taught knowledge of germs as it does from her openness in showing him her "lice." With an offer like that, who can refuse? -- Mladen Baudrand


Finding Grace by Mary Saracino (Spinsters Ink), paper, $12

Tales of families breaking apart are a common theme on daytime talk shows and a reflection of American life. Saracino's version of this is told from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl named Peanut, who relates how her mother left her father, taking her and two sisters on a long journey from New York to Wisconsin with the mother's unlikely lover, a priest, to find a new home. Two brothers are left behind with promises that the mother will send for them. This sudden uprooting of the family has devastating consequences. The priest turns out to be a miserable sort, and the girls feel torn to their core. A wise woman named Grace somehow appears on the scene and becomes a beacon of light at the end of the dark tunnel of the girls' lives.

The most interesting insight Saracino offers in this story is the peculiar draining way in which the mother loves Peanut. She expects the child to be an adult, to show unflagging loyalty to her and an unwavering sense of sacrifice. In reality this is emotional exploitation. The dynamics of their relationship are a painful and profound juxtaposition of forces.

Finding Grace is lightning paced, the prose is terribly simple, and the characters tend to be shallow in varying degrees. At a moment's notice, the plot may suddenly detour into strange territory just so the writer can make a specific point about good versus evil. The reader longs for more complexity, subtlety and just plain worldly depth. -- Ann Peterpaul


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