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Tightly crafted 'Guest' will stay with the reader

The Summer Guest, By Justin Cronin, Dial, 369 pp., $24

As we all know, summer is a state of mind as much as it is a time of year. When else is there a reliable window of freedom that opens onto sublime landscapes, whose sole purpose is to pull you from your regular life?

In Justin Cronin's "The Summer Guest," Joe and Lucy own one of those summer places: a fishing camp in northwestern Maine, with cabins and a lodge set on a vast, clear lake that is ringed by mountains and stunning woods. Guests who stay once will invariably return, drawn by the untouched beauty and the hosts' hospitality.

Joe's father had bought the place after World War II. Injured in battle, he was escaping city life with his young wife and infant son. The country folk accepted his maimed face more readily than his law partners and clients back in Boston had.

The guest of the title is Harry Wainwright, a self-made billionaire who's been coming to the camp since the early 1960s.

The story is centered on one day and evening in 1994, though it moves back and forth through time as easily as a trout gliding through a moonlit lake. After 30 years of summers, with his beloved wife long dead and his son and business fully grown, Harry returns to the camp for a last visit. He is dying of cancer and has planned for his death as carefully as he has planned his entire life.

On the surface, the people welcoming Harry back are quite ordinary: They struggle with daily obstacles, monthly expenses, and life decisions narrowed by economic and family concerns.

Joe and Lucy are striving to keep the business going and to send their only daughter, Kate, to medical school. The couple have known Harry since they were teenagers, when Lucy was a summer waitress falling in love with Joe.

Jordan Patterson has worked at the camp full time for nearly a decade. He used to be a salesman in Boston but now prefers the great Maine woods year-round, even the deep winter isolation. He is in love with Kate, though he has his own ghosts to battle before he can reveal his feelings.

Harry has a proposal for Joe, for Jordan, and for the camp, and his visit prompts his summertime acquaintances to take a second look at their lives. Whatever else happens that day -- and lots does happen -- most of the action is in the decades leading up to the climactic event.

At a time when every other book on store shelves seems to showcase New York blondes who navigate glamorous settings, it's almost startling to read a story that examines, in a believable way, regular lives. The alternating chapters of "The Summer Guest" have distinct voices, and each voice has a full, unhurried quality. Cronin's talent is in selecting the right detail. Like someone packing for a journey in the Maine woods, Cronin -- whose first novel, "Mary & O'Neil," won the PEN/Hemingway award -- knows just what he needs to include and discards everything else. The resulting writing is economical, beautifully and tightly crafted.

Even minor characters have depth. In a long-ago train station on that first trip north, Joe's parents are temporarily snowbound with their infant son. The young veteran and his wife chat with the ticket clerk, an older woman who has lost her son in the war.

As the woman tenderly plays with their baby, she says, "Such sweetness . . . I remember those days. Whatever else happens . . . they're a present you get to keep."

Of course, regular people can live in extraordinary times. By the late 1960s, Joe's father was running an underground railroad to Canada for young men evading the Vietnam draft, and convincing his son to cross the border, too.

Joe's wartime odyssey took him through Canada and back across America, culminating in a two-year prison term. While Joe was away, Lucy left their tiny town to live on her own in Portland, then returned home to help Joe's father run the camp after he fell ill. Each summer, she would await Harry's arrival.

Throughout the novel, you won't find a flashy turn of phrase that lifts off the paper. But at the end of a page you may pause simply to savor the scene and the emotions, how true they feel. The story manages to offer the same thing as this haven in the northern woods -- for a brief time you are transported, completely, to another life.

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