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Short Takes

No Direction Home
By Marisa Silver
Norton, 289 pp., $23.95

This is a beautiful novel of father hunger, tenderly written and carefully plotted.

Will, half of a set of 10-year-old twins, has many other worries before his distant and silent father decides to take off. He is awkward, friendless, and going blind. Marlene's father, the same detached man, left her mother before she was even born. A pretty and resourceful teenager, Marlene experiences her father only as an absence. Fourteen-year-old Rogelio feels abandoned by his father, who left the family in Mexico to find work and send money home to his wife and two other children. As a home health aide in Los Angeles, Rogelio tends to a demented old woman, the grandmother of Marlene.

The three lives intersect naturally and gracefully. Rogelio and Marlene make daring journeys to find their fathers, while Will learns to accept the loss of his. All three children are fully developed as feeling, aching beings, and the parents and grandparents are no less real.

The sense of longing and loss that pervades ''No Direction Home" is tempered by the ending, which provides exactly the catharsis a reader wants. Marisa Silver has produced a remarkable, memorable first novel.

Palladian Days: Finding a New Life in a Venetian Country House
By Sally Gable with Carl I. Gable
Knopf, 266 pp., $23.95

In contrast to the many ungrateful whiners who chronicle their misadventures restoring farmhouses in Provence, Sally Gable has only lovely stories to tell about buying and living in one of Andrea Palladio's most influential, best-preserved, and largest villas.

In 1989, almost by accident, she and her Atlanta businessman husband, Carl, purchased Il Cornaro, an imposing 16th-century villa outside of Venice. The house, symmetrical in design, monumental in scale (impossible to air-condition or heat with 24-foot ceilings), is meant only for summer use. Gable, during her four months a year in residence, is often alone. She befriends the local ladies, employs the neighborhood artisans, learns how to avoid scorpions, relocate bees, replace the roof, restore a beam. She invites friends to visit, allows groups to tour, arranges for musicians to play, and makes the house available for a film shoot. While researching Palladian architecture, the Cornaro family, and the villa's five former owners, she learns the stories behind Il Cornaro's many frescoes and appreciates the rarity of its grand double-portico design.

Her good manners keep her not only from complaining but from revealing facts a reader wants to know: How much did it cost to buy, and how much does it cost to maintain one of the most beautiful houses in the world?

The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories
By Bret Lott
Random House, 208 pp., $23.95

These haunting stories by Bret Lott are full of emotion. They often veer off into the surreal, but only slightly. The best are grounded in reality but shadowed by doubts, fears, and anxieties.

In ''An Evening on the Cusp of the Apocalypse," Larry returns home to find that his ordered life has suddenly fallen apart. He has lost his job, his wife confesses to an affair, his son has gotten a tattoo. Even postal and electric service have stopped. Then just as abruptly, the postman arrives and everything returns to normal. In ''History," a woman waiting at an airport imagines she sees her grown son. The vision brings back his childhood, her marriage, all that is lost and can be retrieved only in moments of illusion. Two brothers, in ''Everything Cut Will Come Back," carry on a long phone conversation from opposite coasts, talking of this and that. Eventually they say what they want to -- that they miss their dead parents, that they love each other.

Individually, the stories are poignant, but as a group they are too much alike. They all follow a familiar arc from fragmentation to revelation. The tone of eerie calm, on which they all start and end, eventually becomes expected, almost normal.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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