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DEBUT NOVEL IS A GRIPPING TALE OF A LIFE CHANGED BY ONE EVENT

It's 1965. On a frigid and snowy night, in a desolate Vermont motel room, 16-year-old high school student Carole loses her innocence -- not just her virginity.

Although that was originally the plan.

Carole, overweight and uncertain of herself, and her skinny and popular friend Naomi had traveled to Vermont from Spence, their elite boarding school, with the specific intention of leaving girlhood behind, in the out-of-the-way motel room with an older man named Eddie.

The plan goes badly awry, however. And in an instant, Carole's life -- and her psyche, her very soul -- changes completely.

From the crime that begins the novel (which we won't spoil here), to the crime that concludes it, we have quite a tale of murder, manipulation and revenge in Pam Lewis's "Speak Softly, She Can Hear," the Connecticut writer's debut novel.

This is a gripping tale that spans several decades, moving back and forth between the tawdry scene in the motel room that winter night in 1965 and later phases of Carole's life, as she crosses the country from New York City to San Francisco in an attempt to put her past behind her.

Along the way, Carole loses and reconnects with the other players of that night: Naomi, who becomes a rich, brittle drunk, and Eddie, a drifter who makes it back from Vietnam only to track Carole down, over and over again. She learns the bitter lesson -- so hard to believe at 16 -- that some actions can never be erased, some memories never buried deeply enough.

Lewis's novel is a solidly good book -- though better in its fast-paced first half than its second, which drags as it explores the fears and demons of the adult Carole, who eventually moves back to Vermont and opens a funky restaurant. The way the mystery of the night in 1965 is resolved, when that big moment finally comes, comes as a bit too pat and tidy, as well.

But the author, whose short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, is a talented writer who has crafted a creative, different story that's revealing in the way it examines the changes in Carole after that single pivotal night in her life.

This is a real novel, not a cheap thriller.

Then again, the book does deliver on the goal of keeping you up late at night -- if that's the kind of thing you've a taste for.

Speak Softly, She Can Hear
By Pam Lewis
Simon & Schuster
340 pages, $23

Charity Vogel is a News reporter.