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POP LIT

Tales of spirituality, ethnicity, zoology, with a human touch

In the Tenth House
By Laura Dietz
Crown, 416 pp, $24.95

Zoology
By Ben Dolnick
Vintage, 304 pp, $12.95

The Hindi-Bindi Club
By Monica Pradhan
Bantam, 448 pp, $12

May brings three interesting first novels. A reader can't ask for more.

Laura Dietz's marvelous "In the Tenth House" invites readers into some of the odder corners of the Victorian era with a gothic plot involving spiritualism, psychiatry, fraud, greed, obsession, repressed sexuality and madness. Dietz smoothly integrates what must have been an enormous amount of research, telling an enthralling, intricate story rich in atmosphere and historical detail.

Dr. Ambrose Gennett is a well-to-do young psychiatrist, one of the few followers of Sigmund Freud's new theories practicing in London. He pauses on a train platform one morning to help an attractive young stranger after she suffers an accidental blow to the head. She seems to recognize him, saying, "This is what comes of lying to your mother." She is talking about herself, but Ambrose is convinced, for good reason, that the remark is aimed at him. She blurts out a few more sentences that seem startlingly relevant to his life, then turns and disappears.

Ambrose convinces himself that he only wants to help her and becomes obsessed with tracking her down. He soon discovers that Lily Embry is something he, a man of science, particularly despises, a spiritualist medium. She helps her mother, Carola, perform seances for clients who want to communicate with the dead. Lily agrees that spiritualism is a fraud, but she believes that she possesses true psychic gifts. The Tarot cards tell her that Ambrose has been sent to help her. Why else would he have given her his calling card? Her mother has fallen ill and they are desperate for money. Gennett's half sister and her aunt are enthusiastic believers in spiritualism, and Lily arranges a seance at the Gennett family home, with disastrous results.

Ambrose, furious that Lily has dared to dupe his relations, becomes almost insanely fixated on exposing spiritualism, and Lily in particular, as a fraud. Lily, faced with mounting debts, teams up with Monsieur St. Aubin, a con man with access to wealthy clients. This stew of sex, spirituality, and madness reaches a boiling point -- more of an explosion, actually -- during a seance at a country estate.

The appeal of Ben Dolnick's "Zoology" is in the narrator's voice. Henry Elinsky is authentically adolescent -- likable, funny, irritating, self-doubting, self-obsessed. At the start of the novel Henry, a would-be saxophonist, is living with his depressed mother, relentlessly cheerful father, and eccentric uncle Walter in Chevy Chase, Md. He has been invited to take a year off from American University in Washington D.C., where he earned three Ds and a C in his freshman year. Henry doesn't hesitate when his older brother invites him to spend the summer in his Manhattan apartment. Henry takes a job at the Children's Zoo in Central Park, shoveling goat manure and feeding frozen mice to a crocodile named Nessie. Away from the zoo, Henry tries to spark a relationship with Margaret, an aspiring writer who's spending her summer babysitting. But she wants to be friends, nothing more. He plays his sax at an open mike night and faces the fact that he has no talent. He reads "Hunt for Red October." Henry's somewhat unsettled and pointless new life goes awry after his father has a heart attack. He survives, but the episode exposes serious problems in the family. It's the start of a series of difficulties for Henry, most self-made. Dolnick is a talented writer whose understated style is a pleasure to read. He has made Henry an exceptionally sensitive and observant character, but it's unclear if Henry learns much.

Monica Pradhan's "The Hindi-Bindi Club" is being likened to Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," but the similarity ends with the subject matter, i.e., Old World-New World tensions, mother-daughter relationships. Pradhan's novel has a lot to recommend it, but as a writer she's more of a craftsman than an artist. "The Hindi-Bindi Club" is the affectionate, if mocking, name bestowed by their American-born daughters on three Indian-born women whose lifelong friendship was forged when they met 40 years ago in Boston's graduate school community. The narrative voices change, with each mother and each daughter telling her story.

The daughters are adults, trying to live their own lives, still struggling with their parents' expectations and disappointments. None has married an Indian. Independent Kiran, a family doctor, has divorced her American rock musician husband and come home to visit her mother and estranged father and to tell them that, at 32, she's ready for a "semi-arranged" marriage. Preity is happily married, the mother of two, a successful consultant, yet she can't quite forget a Muslim boyfriend she had in college, and she can't forgive her parents for disapproving of him. Rani is a critically acclaimed artist, married to a man who supports her in every way. But her parents still fear she'll attempt suicide, as she tried at 15. The mothers have their own stories, very different than their daughters' and in many ways more compelling. Their lives in India, their struggles to adjust to America are inherently dramatic. The book is an interesting account of cultural change. It's more than Indian-American chick-lit, although it's that, too, with a wedding in the last chapter and lots of recipes interspersed in the narrative.

Diane White writes monthly about new light and popular fiction.

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