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POP LIT

At villa, things go from bad to verse

Little Stalker
By Jennifer Belle
Riverhead, 333 pp., $24.95

The Sonnet Lover
By Carol Goodman
Ballantine, 350 pp., $24.95

A Much Married Man
By Nicholas Coleridge
St. Martin's, 464 pp., $24.95

Readers who like to escape into books for sheer entertainment and enjoy a well-written novel that refuses to inspire or uplift or redeem or teach a lesson -- except, by example, a writing lesson -- may want to add one or two of these novels to their summer reading lists.

Jennifer Belle's very funny "Little Stalker" is an offbeat, surprisingly sweet story about voyeurism, celebrity, obsession, and writer's block. Rebekah Kettle narrates her story in an irresistible voice that is world-weary, sarcastic, and vulnerable. Rebekah's first novel was a bestseller, but she can't get started on a second. Her love life is a mess, she may have a brain tumor, and her father is behaving even more oddly than usual. Rebekah takes refuge in fantasy, watching reruns of "Little House on the Prairie" and obsessing about Arthur Weeman , a Woody Allen-like filmmaker she has adored from afar for 20 years, since she was 13, when her parents divorced. She's so besotted with the reclusive movie director that she steals a check from her father and spends $22,000 to furnish her Manhattan apartment with props from Weeman's movies: an oxygen tank, a giant plastic hot dog, and a gondola, among other improbable items.

Feeling guilty, Rebekah grudgingly agrees to help her father by filling in at his medical practice until he hires someone new; his longtime office manager, Irmabelle, has quit in an emotional huff, leaving Rebekah wondering about the nature of their relationship. When Rebekah volunteers to help one of her father's patients, the senile-when-it-suits-her Mrs. Williams, she discovers that the elderly woman's apartment affords a view into Weeman's kitchen. Rebekah becomes a regular, bringing Mrs. Williams Genoa salami and Depends and watching Weeman, who spends a lot of time staring at young girls in the school playground beneath his window. Rebekah starts writing him flirtatious fan letters from her 13-year-old self, pretending to be a precocious girl named Thalia. She thinks a child muse might help him overcome his creative block: "Words from a child could inspire men to greatness, make them hit home runs out of the park and things like that."

Rebekah/Thalia succeeds in inspiring Weeman, not entirely in the way she'd hoped. "Little Stalker" is a treat -- hilarious, richly textured, subtly insightful, and undeniably twisted.

Carol Goodman is the author of several eerie Gothic novels of suspense set in upstate New York, among them "The Lake of Dead Languages" and "The Seduction of Water." "The Sonnet Lover," her latest, is a mystery with a literary flavor and a labyrinthine plot that unfolds in a Tuscan villa, centered on a "lost" sonnet that may have been written by Shakespeare to a woman who may have been his "Dark Lady." Goodman layers on plenty of haunting Italian atmosphere, although her fans may find that "The Sonnet Lover" lacks the mesmerizing creepiness of her earlier books.

Rose Asher, professor of literature at Hudson College in Manhattan, is stunned when her favorite student, Robin Weiss, jumps -- or is pushed -- to his death from a college building after a screening of his award-winning short film. A mysterious young Italian named Orlando had confronted him just before he died, accusing him of stealing from him. Robin had spent a semester at Hudson's Tuscan villa, La Civetta, where he claimed to have discovered a sonnet that might have been written by Shakespeare to the poet Ginevra de Laura, daughter of a master mosaic artist and, Robin speculated, the Dark Lady. Rose is hired as literary adviser to the movie company filming Robin's screenplay, based on the Shakespeare-Dark Lady connection, at La Civetta. Although she feels an obligation to Robin to find the lost poem, she sets out for Tuscany somewhat reluctantly. Twenty years before, Rose spent a summer studying there and fell in love with her instructor, Bruno Brunelli, who at the end of their affair returned to his wife, Claudia. Bruno and Claudia are still in residence, along with their son, Orlando.

An intricate web of subplots involves academic maneuvering, conflicting claims about the ownership of La Civetta, and Rose's love life. Goodman ties it all together in a workmanlike fashion. She's most compelling when she's writing about literature and history, as when she describes the rose-petal design on La Civetta's mosaic floors, which, in a certain light, resembles blood and provides a clue to the mystery of the missing sonnet.

Anthony Anscombe plows disastrously through life trying to be honorable. It's a class thing. Anthony is a vanishing type, a British gentleman, heir to a 2,000-acre Oxfordshire estate, scion of a banking fortune. Nicholas Coleridge's subtle social satire "A Much Married Man" follows Anthony over 40 years, three wives and a mistress, a gaggle of children and stepchildren, and an extended family of relations and hangers-on living in old cottages and farmhouses on the estate, dependent on Anthony's generosity and goodwill.

Anthony's first wife, Amanda, is a dazzling free spirit . Shortly after their daughter, Jasmine, is born Amanda runs off, leaving him the baby. Sandra, the nanny he hires to care for Jasmine, becomes his second wife, bringing order to his life and bearing two children. The marriage endures until Anthony's acupuncturist-mistress, Nula, turns up in the middle of a village cricket match to introduce him to their infant daughter, Gaia. The third wife, Dita, is a monster, a money-mad social climber who adds an introverted stepdaughter and a criminal stepson to the Anscombe family before giving birth to Anthony's son.

Anthony stumbles from one catastrophe to another, baffled by his own inability to manage his life. His fatal flaw may be that he means well. Coleridge skillfully handles a small army of sharply drawn characters, none of them sympathetic, Anthony included. His narrative style is straightforward; he has a real talent for humor, delivered in a deadpan fashion. And he has an eye for little details that reveal character, for example, Dita's table decorations for a simple family Christmas lunch: "Meticulously arranged down the middle of the table were two dozen pomegranates, spray-painted gold, with a pyramid of ten more as a centerpiece. The cutlery for each place setting was flamboyantly tied up in pussycat bows of gold ribbon and lace."

Diane White writes every month about new light and popular fiction.

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