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Victorians dying to get into cemetery

From the author of 'Girl with a Pearl Earring,' an ill-timed novel that mocks excessive grief

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The tragedy of Sept. 11 has thrust some new novels into a painful state of relevance that their authors could never have anticipated. Dennis Bock's "Ash Garden" asks us to consider the complexities of delivering a devastating military response to a surprise attack. David Adams Richards's "Mercy Among the Children" provides a painful consideration of the costs of peace in the face of assault. And Orhan Pamuk's "My Name is Red" explores a murder set against the clash of Western and Eastern values.

But if world events endow some new titles with unexpected pertinence, they also render others almost obscenely inappropriate. Tracy Chevalier has ridden this wheel of fortune up and down. Her first novel, "Girl with a Pearl Earring," was a prominent member of a group of unexpectedly popular, well-written novels about Vermeer that came out in 1999. But with "Falling Angels," her timing - and the quality of her writing - couldn't be more different.

The story is set in London, between the deaths of Queen Victoria in 1901 and King Edward in 1910. Most of the action takes place in a cemetery heavily decorated with "preposterous monuments - ostentatious representations of a family's status, granite headstones, Egyptian obelisks, gothic spires, plinths topped with columns, weeping ladies, angels, and of course, urns."

Two families meet one day while visiting their plots. Gertrude Waterhouse is a shy, proper woman married to an equally conservative husband. Their wildly dramatic and sensitive daughter Lavinia quickly befriends Maude, the daughter of Kitty and Richard Coleman. While the two girls scamper around the grounds with the son of a gravedigger, the Colemans and the Waterhouses make small talk, and the wives discover they have absolutely nothing in common.

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