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Sensing a change in 'To Feel Stuff'

To Feel Stuff
By Andrea Seigel
Harvest, 269 pp., paperback, $14

Elodie Harrington is not your typical Brown University sophomore. For starters, she suffers from a chronic barrage of illnesses that have kept her permanently ensconced in the school's infirmary. While her peers take classes each day and live in dorm rooms, Elodie leads a relatively solitary life in the infirmary, working on her studies independently in between bouts of whatever illness plagues her body, ranging from lingering fibromyalgia to tuberculosis and including a number of indefinable maladies no one can quite diagnose. Her only company is the nurses who tend to her needs but basically give her room to go about her business. The infirmary is home, and somewhat remarkably, Elodie seems OK with it all. She is not only exceptionally bright and perceptive, she is resigned to her fate.

And then three very different people enter Elodie's life, forever altering her insular existence, and here's where Andrea Seigel's new ``To Feel Stuff" starts to get interesting. First comes Dr. Mark Kirschling, whose humanitarian efforts are tinged with ambition -- he makes her the subject of an intensive study with hopes of publishing his findings and securing his reputation. Elodie submits to such examination only as a way to remain in the good graces of the university's administration, which has begun seriously questioning the wisdom of letting her stay given the dubious quality of her college experience.

Then comes Chess Hunter, a popular big-man-on-campus who winds up in the infirmary after a seemingly random attack leaves him with two smashed knees. Outwardly gregarious, Chess hides a sensitive, introspective nature that makes him immediately susceptible to Elodie's compelling combination of directness and vulnerability. Separate yet together in their quiet womb of healing, the two form an instant bond and fall in love. It is a love that grows stronger even under the shadow of their disparate fates. While Chess's knees will heal and he will get on with his life, Elodie is destined to be left behind, struggling with illnesses that may never end.

The third character is a ghostlike dark-haired boy whom Elodie begins to see periodically wandering the infirmary corridors. The novel's ongoing air of suspense is driven by this mysterious apparition, with whom Elodie has brief, elliptical conversations. She wonders if through her continuing illnesses she has developed a psychic sensitivity like her mother and if she is seeing the spirit of someone who has died under questionable circumstances. A burgeoning psychic ability could be both an explanation for her strange condition and a raison d'etre. Dr. Kirschling, however, wonders initially if Elodie is simply sicker than he ever imagined, not only frail physically but deranged.

With ``To Feel Stuff," the 26-year-old author of ``Like the Red Panda" has crafted an engaging page turner, part love story, part coming-of-age memoir, part existential mystery/ghost story. It unfolds through chapters alternating between the two lovers' letters to each other, through which much of the back story and interior detail is revealed, and Kirschling's clinical writings -- published not, alas, in the New England Journal of Medicine as originally hoped, but in the Journal of Parapsychology. Though the basic conceit often strains credulity and the character of Chess is not particularly convincing, Seigel's writing is excellent, strikingly direct, yet enlivened with rich detail. Musings on the nature of life, love, health, and happiness are deftly integrated into the flow of each character's reflections, charting a transformation in all that is touching and believable. And at book's end, there is a sense that Elodie's journey has just begun.

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