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Postcard from another life

PAUL Valery said that a poet is like a man who carries huge weights up to a roof and drops them all at once on the head of a passerby. With her first novel, "This Must Be the Place," Kate Racculia has climbed to the highest roof and dropped the heaviest weights she could carry. Witness her ambitious premise: a 32-year-old photographer, on the brink of a nervous breakdown after the accidental death of his wife, flees his home in California for a boardinghouse in Ruby Falls, New York, - all because of a mysterious postcard, written 16 years earlier, found among his wife's belongings and addressed to her childhood best friend but never sent.

A mishmash of characters offer different points of view: Arthur, the grieving photographer; the childhood best friend and boardinghouse owner, Mona; and Mona's disaffected teenage daughter, Oneida. But the most engaging character is seen in retrospect: Arthur's dead wife, Amy, who ran away from Ruby Falls to work as a special-effects artist in Hollywood. Once Arthur discovers a secret from her past, vaguely alluded to on the postcard, the characters' lives collide and the metaphorical weights drop.

Unfortunately, Racculia fails to differentiate among these voices to any great extent. Differences of content are obscured by a certain regularity of style. The teenagers differ from the adults only because they use slightly more slang and make slightly more pop culture references, which often substitute for revealing detail. Cliches abound. A character with eyes "blue and deep as the ocean" wields a wooden pizza paddle "with a finesse that took Mona's breath away." In a classroom people laugh "not loud. More like a ripple."

When Arthur, newly arrived in Los Angeles, visits an In-N-Out Burger, he's strangely overwhelmed: "Customers casually ordered items that weren't even on the menu (a double-double? a Flying Dutchman?)." A scene that was presumably meant to be humorous comes across as merely overwritten: "And now he was at the counter and the girl behind it was smiling broadly, and behind her another happy worker was murdering potatoes with a diabolical contraption that was half guillotine, half garlic press. The giant silver handle came down on a naked potato, and it splintered into pale fingers." Soon after, Racculia melodramatically resorts to italics as Arthur tells himself, "I do not belong in this place."

Fortunately, Racculia's instinct for plotting seems much surer. With delicacy and care, she guides readers to climactic moments, moving the members of a large cast with ease. And every now and then she adroitly extends one of the novel's central metaphors. Thus a forged Joseph Cornell box with a personal photograph inside acquires a larger meaning: "Your whole life is a creation. What you make it, literally." But too often Racculia's characters explain away her symbols and metaphors, or she chooses ones that are too obvious. Reading "The Scarlet Letter" for an English class, Oneida compares it to her mother's own situation: a single woman with a child, harshly judged by the community. Still, Racculia succeeds where many fail: she has constructed a strong, complicated story that we readily believe in. For all its eccentricities, the plot of "This Must Be the Place" unfolds as something that really happened.


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