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'Rivers' is a vivid but meandering character study

Between Two Rivers, By Nicholas Rinaldi, HarperCollins, 432 pp., $24.95

Nicholas Rinaldi's new "Between Two Rivers" is a vivid, elegiac examination of the lives that intertwine in a luxury condominium in lower Manhattan. The elegant Echo Terrace is a microcosm of the richness and diversity of the city, and Rinaldi's group portrait of the building's international cast of tenants is both wryly humorous and periodically heart-rending.

The book's most intriguing character is the building's proud, insightful concierge, Farro Fescu. A Romanian refugee with no family of his own, Fescu hangs out at the desk long past regular hours, greeting residents, answering the phone, hailing cabs, taking deliveries. He reads the encyclopedia, "in an effort to impose some order on his life and to increase the range of his knowledge." He pines for a former resident, long dead, the glamorous opera singer Renata Negri. In an idle moment, he is prone to reflection that flows with a rolling, train-of-thought rush. "What is of value and what is not. Is life important? Death? Time and memory? Dream? . . . What is importance anyway?"

Fescu also watches, listens, and absorbs. He is more than just a simple liveried doorman. He prides himself on "knowing the needs, the desires, aware of the subtleties and innuendos, so closely involved that he feels the pulse, he knows the shadows and the light." He becomes the lens through which we view the building's fascinating array of occupants.

There is 50-year-old Egyptian-born cosmetic surgeon Theo Tattafruge, for whom liposuction is "a work of art" and who specializes in sexual reassignment surgery. He has performed plastic surgery on a number of the building's residents, from cheek implants to breast reduction. "Some days he loves it and can't imagine living without it. He carves, shapes, brings beauty out of ugliness, and that, to him, is a pleasure like no other." But other days, he is simply tired and worn, and he is still plagued by the knowledge that his grandfather had been one of the brownshirts who helped catapult Hitler into power.

There is Karl Vogel, a highly decorated World War II German fighter pilot who believes "War is a thing, a process, a momentum, a madness that doesn't explain itself. That's how he thinks of it, and, seeing it that way, he's been able to accept it and live with it." There is Muhta Saad, an Iraqi spice merchant; Maggie Sowle, a world-famous quilter; and Yesenia Rivera, a 19-year-old girl from Queens, the building's housekeeper. The most heartbreaking character is Nora Abernooth, who, after her husband's death, acquires a menagerie of exotic animals to keep her company, only to poison them one by one in her unrelenting despair. All have their stories and their secrets.

In the hands of a less skilled writer, the melodrama of some of the tenants could easily devolve into soap opera territory. However, Rinaldi keeps the book's tone clean and precise. At times, he is almost clinical in his clear-eyed observations and accounts. But some of the vignettes, such as the description of Yesenia nursing her baby by the window as the J train passes by, are hauntingly beautiful. And there is a brilliant scene in which some of the book's major characters are gathered at a Fourth of July party. As they stand watching the Goodyear blimp coast by, Rinaldi unveils the fractured chains of their individual thoughts.

"Between Two Rivers" is not a page turner. It unfolds at a leisurely pace, meandering between characters and situations. There's little dramatic arc, but more a gently rhythmic ebb and flow. Some of the chapters are so perfectly calibrated that they read like self-contained short stories. Only the big jump in time from 1993 to 2001 seems jarringly disjunct, making Part III seem a little pasted on. However, it provides the occasion for a vivid, harrowing account of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, located just blocks from the fictitious Echo Terrace. At its heart, "Between Two Rivers" is a fascinating dissection of disparate lives whose common threads are the building that forms the community in which they live and the man who is that building's human face.

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