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Originally published Friday, March 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"Pajama Girls" in South Carolina; and life, love and art intertwine in "A Curious Earth"

A wryly witty contemporary-romance novel from a Northwest author, and a British novelist's tale of wanton old age.

"The Pajama Girls

of Lambert Square"

by Rosina Lippi

G.P. Putnam's Sons, 368 pp., $24.95

The busy Northwest-based author Rosina Lippi — also known by her pen name of Sara Donati — has produced a wryly witty second contemporary-romance novel, "The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square." It's a remarkable shift in literary gears from her historical "Into the Wilderness" series (under the Donati name): the new "Pajama Girls" is set in the present, in an imaginary South Carolina community so charming that you want to move there immediately.

So does John Dodge, an entrepreneur who likes to buy failing but interesting small businesses and turn them around, whether it's a bookstore, a theater, or a shop called Scrivener's that sells antique and collectible pens. It is Scrivener's that brings Dodge to Lamb's Corner, where he moves into an apartment on Lambert Square — right next to Julia Darrow, the beautiful but mysterious proprietor of the linens shop, Cocoon. (The shop also sells upscale pajamas, which Julia and all her employees wear; hence the novel's title.)

The town supposedly is in an economic slump, which makes it a little hard to believe that a shop selling sheets costing thousands of dollars and requiring hand washing can thrive and prosper, alongside another shop that sells $3,000 pens in an era where computer keyboards rule. But there's also a Swedish company that's establishing an automobile manufacturing plant there — and contributing some memorable Swedish characters to Lippi's cast.

One of the main factors in this novel's success is Lippi's ability to spin out a fully imagined town and not only a cast of memorable townspeople (and their dogs), but also their surprisingly complex web of social interaction. The townspeople of Lamb's Corner, that hotbed of gossip, all manage to winkle out each other's secrets with what must occasionally be a rather uncomfortable alacrity. They're constantly bringing each other food, gifts and stories; no wonder Dodge is initially overcome by the offers, invitations and attempts at matchmaking.

But despite all the gossiping, there are some long-buried secrets among the major characters; Lippi unveils them carefully and with a tenderness that is quite touching. At the novel's close, you may find yourself glad that Lippi has thoughtfully created a Web site that continues the rich interior life of this imaginary community: www.lambertsquare.com.

Reviewed by Melinda Bargreen

"A Curious Earth"

by Gerard Woodward

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W.W. Norton, 290 pp., $14.95

Unlike many elderly gentlemen of literature, Aldous Jones is not saintly, charmingly roguish, or thoughtfully reflective. But "A Curious Earth," British novelist Gerard Woodward's tale of wanton old age, is all the more appealing because of it. Aldous' smile is not endearing (often it's just gaping, as he's carelessly lost his teeth on an ocean voyage); his words of wisdom aren't particularly wise. He drinks too much, doesn't mind when potato tubers start sprouting in his kitchen cupboard, and ponders whether to turn his crumbling home into an art gallery — never pausing to wonder where he might sleep or eat.

"A Curious Earth" is a sequel to Woodward's Man Booker Prize finalist "I'll Go to Bed at Noon" and a decidedly lighter read; the previous book, which detailed the alcohol-soaked lives and deaths of Aldous' wife and son, is as harrowing as it is blackly comic. Aldous was one of a number of main characters in the earlier book; here he is the sole hero, as we watch him deal with his exasperated daughter and develop an obsession both with a Rembrandt painting and a wispy, fragile woman named Maria, who resists his attempts to catch hold of her.

Woodward's obvious fondness for Aldous keeps the character likable; indeed, we side with him against daughter Juliette, a humorless control freak who struggles to help her father improve his life. The scenes in which Aldous, Juliette and her staid boyfriend, Bernard, play trivia games — meticulously following a labyrinthine list of rules — are small masterpieces of character humor. We learn everything we need to know about Bernard when we are told that, in Trivial Pursuit "it was [Bernard's] job, always, to distribute wedges."

As Aldous' decaying house is made whole again by a team of brisk builders, Aldous himself is fading, dimmed by whiskey and indifference to practicalities. A lyrical, late scene (illustrated on the book's attractive cover), in which a vision appears to the old man, brings the novel to a satisfying close. Though it's just an illusion, Aldous tells himself, it was a lovely one — "what an extraordinarily generous gift of his own mind to itself to conjure this thing in his room." Life, love and art intertwine, as the story both ends and enticingly begins anew.

Reviewed by Moira Macdonald

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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