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Ill-conceived romance sweeps small-town girl into trouble

AMY AND ISABELLE By Elizabeth Strout Random House 304 pp., $22.95

Beneath the placid surface of life in a small New England mill town lies a world of secrets and emotional turmoil. This sounds like the stuff from which best-selling novels are made, as Grace Metalious demonstrated in her 1950 blockbuster, "Peyton Place," which spawned sequels, movies, and television's first night-time soap opera.

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Although Elizabeth Strout's poignant, sensitively imagined first novel, "Amy and Isabelle," is very different in style and tone from Metalious's powerful but rather crude book, both novels explore some of the same terrain. There is the small-town setting, the sense of quiet desperation lurking beneath the bland faade, and, at the center, the story of a well-intentioned single mother disturbed by the emergence of her teenage daughter's sexuality, not least because it serves as an uncomfortable reminder of her own youthful indiscretion.

Genteel, reserved, and anxious, Isabelle Goodrow came to town some 15 years ago, with her infant daughter, Amy. She claimed to be a widow, but in fact had succumbed, in her youthful innocence, to the attentions of an older man whom she naively and mistakenly believed would leave his wife for her.

The story opens in the late 1960s. Isabelle has been leading a quiet, churchgoing life, working as a secretary at the local mill. Her boss, Avery Clark, is a rather dull, colorless man who nonetheless serves as the focus of poor Isabelle's romantic fantasies. She longs for the chance to give Avery the kind of love and tenderness she feels sure he does not receive from his chilly wife, who does not seem sufficiently appreciative of having a decent, reliable husband.

Isabelle exists, as it were, on the margins: She does not socialize with the other women in the office, who are Roman Catholics and live on the wrong side of town. She and Amy live in a tiny cottage on the right, Protestant and professional, side of town, yet she feels that the better-off, more established citizens, including her fellow church members, look down on her.

Isabelle's daughter, Amy, has grown into a gangly, shy teenager. When a lively, charismatic substitute math teacher, Mr. Robertson, begins showing Amy the kind of special attention she's been missing, the stage is set for trouble. Not yet 16, Amy falls in love with her teacher, which would not be such a bad thing, if only Mr. Robertson had not seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The repercussions of this ill-advised liaison are heartbreaking, both for Amy and for Isabelle, who wonders where she went wrong in raising her daughter. Unlike the author of "Peyton Place," Strout is not interested in public scandal, but rather in the many and subtle private reverberations wrought by this complex act of betrayal.

With insight and delicacy, Strout portrays the changes that occur in several relationships: between Amy and Isabelle, between Isabelle and her co-workers, and between Isabelle and her boss (who accidentally, to his own immense embarrassment, discovers Amy and her teacher in a compromising position).

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The novelist's third-person narration takes us inside the characters' minds and hearts, while maintaining a gentle, mildly ironic distance that lends a deeper understanding and sympathy to the proceedings.

Strout places the story of Isabelle and Amy's tribulations in the context of the problems besetting other residents of the town, who are seen to be enduring the pangs of their own infidelities, betrayals, disappointments, and losses. Her novel recalls not only the gritty realism of "Peyton Place," but something of the elegiac charm of "Our Town," as well.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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