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Short Takes

By Joanna Scott
Little, Brown, 262 pp., $23.95

There is more than a hint of ''Romeo and Juliet" in this elegant novel. Indeed, the story takes place not far from Shakespeare's Verona -- a couple of hundred miles as the crow flies from the Italian island of Elba.

It is June 1944, and French troops have landed on the Mediterranean island to liberate it from German occupation. Some of the Allied soldiers are no less barbaric than the Nazis they have come to displace. In the chaos of war, a teenage Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, who is innocence personified, wanders away from his company. Wounded and bewildered, he takes shelter in a country villa with a ''little princess," 10-year-old Adriana Nardi, and her mother. Utterly charmed by each other, the two youngsters are as naïve about love as they are about hatred. They do not realize that war stories never end well.

Although the drama and the romantic eccentricity of the plot are compromised by an intrusive frame tale that has Adriana, falling ill on a commuter train in present-day New Jersey, looking back as if remembering a dream, the jewel tones of Joanna Scott's flawless prose give the story a remarkable emotional luminescence.

The Penelopiad
By Margaret Atwood
Canongate, 199 pp., $18

Margaret Atwood, novelist, essayist, poet, is one of a select group of authors who have been commissioned to retell a myth, in the publisher's words, in ''a contemporary and memorable way." Atwood has conscientiously fulfilled her assignment, recasting ''The Odyssey" in feminist terms, from the point of view of Odysseus' wife, Penelope, who was famously faithful.

Or was she? We are meant to suspect that Penelope isn't being entirely frank with us about her celebrated fidelity. And, really, why should her glamorous cousin Helen be the only gal in the Peloponnesus to enjoy a love life? Twenty years is a long time for a wife to wait chastely for a rogue of a husband she hardly knows, off having adventures while she minds his estate, raises his sullen son, and fends off marauding suitors who don't get that no means no.

Like opera lyrics exposed in all their naked banality in translation, myth does not fare well in this colloquial feminist retelling, especially in the choruslike commentary of Penelope's maidservants, who are executed for murky reasons on Odysseus' return, a feminist outrage of particular interest to Atwood. This is an ''Odyssey" that sets sail on a sea of theory. Without language that sings, myth isn't myth at all.

The Time in Between
By David Bergen
Random House, 237 pp., $23.95

Charles Boatman has always been a mystery to his children, though they understood that he was in pain, and that the pain derived from his long-ago service in Vietnam. When Charles impulsively returns to Southeast Asia and drops out of sight, his daughter Ada, with her hedonist brother in tow, follows him to Danang. Frustrated at first that this alien country will not yield to her single-minded pursuit, Ada soon falls under its spell.

This moody novel breaks into several discrete sections, each with its own personality, a structure that seems more arbitrary than postmodern in design. The first part has the feel of a familiar tale of foreign intrigue, complete with an ambiguously helpful police official. It gives way to a flashback that reveals to us what will shortly be revealed to Ada. There is even an extract from a novel, a Vietnamese soldier's story, which has precipitated Charles's guilt-stricken journey. At length, Ada, alone in Danang, tumbles into a doomed love affair.

David Bergen, a Canadian who has lived in Vietnam, persuasively evokes a seductive and unknowable place. His characterization of Ada, who is searching for more than her elusive father, is less persuasive. Ultimately, it is not just Bergen's Orient that is inscrutable.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.

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