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'By the Grand Canal' has a nice sense of place but its story meanders

By the Grand Canal, By William Rivière, Grove, 288 pp., $24

William Rivière's ''By the Grand Canal" ventures into territory staked out by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf, and Remarque. Set in post-World War I Venice, Rivière's tale follows the fortunes of a small group of friends, each of whom struggles with loss and disorientation.

The characters brood over the past, reassess relationships, and search for romance and redemption. The pleasures of Venice help to ease their burdens.

Hugh Thurne, a British diplomat, arrives in Venice seeking refuge from a bad marriage and the demands of his work. He renews a friendship with Giacomo and Valentina Venier, a kindly couple who live with their two children, Francesco and Gloria, in a crumbling old palace. A mild-mannered lawyer, Giacomo suffers from heart trouble.

Over drinks, he and Hugh grimly discuss the prospects for postwar Europe. In the Veniers, the lonely Hugh finds a substitute family.

Passing the time, Hugh begins an affair with Emanuela, a free-spirited opera singer, and mulls over his marriage and career. Soon to join his circle in Venice are Violet Mancroft, the widow of a close friend killed in the war, and her son, Robert. Hugh wants to be a friend and source of support; he has always been attracted to Violet, and he tries to envision their relationship under these new circumstances.

''By the Grand Canal" nicely suggests the healing effects of place. The Venice of the novel offers the characters a mix of solitude and community. It seems like a friendly small town, but one that has places to hide and to be alone. The Venier home, like Venice itself long past its prime, gives family and friends a sense of security and continuity; Gloria dwells fondly on the house's ''creaks and its draughts; the light that fell through different windows at different times and seasons; the church bells from near and far, those Grand Canal chimes that had measured out her life."

Yet however pleasing the novel's backdrop, it is a setting in search of a story. ''By the Grand Canal" announces but rarely dramatizes its concerns; its multiplicity of viewpoints dilutes character development; and the novel discreetly turns away from difficult or ambiguous situations. We are told, for example, that Hugh's marriage is a ''charade" and a ''bad joke," but we learn little about the relationship and about why or how the couple fell out of love.

Though the narrative contains many passages alluding to the war, they are self-contained and perfunctory; the novel as a whole keeps a safe distance from the subject. We rarely sense fresh grief, bitterness, or trauma. Speaking of the war's horrors, Hugh states, ''An immense evil has been done. . . . It's not easy to conceive of grief and despair on this scale, or . . . what the abstract reverberations of the war will be." The words are apt, but the tone is pompous and passionless.

Hugh later describes his generation as ''lost" and ''haunted" by war and expresses uplifting sentiments about finding sustenance in the past. But much of the time he does not seem particularly ''haunted"; he seems like a man having a most pleasant midlife crisis.

Moments after the unveiling of a war memorial during which a bereaved woman breaks down, Hugh, hoping to run into Emanuela, spots her and feels ''relieved and cheerful." So much for postwar angst.

Hugh wonders at one point what the future holds for those left adrift by war, but decides the question is ''too difficult for the time being." Unfortunately, the novel's vision is not much larger than that of its main character.

''By the Grand Canal" partakes of serious themes, but fails to engage any of them.

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