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'Be Mine' is told with remorseless skill, intensity

For Sherry, it starts with a slip of paper.

Just plain yellow notebook paper, nothing fancy, tucked into her faculty mailbox at the community college where she teaches English. On the paper, someone has scrawled two words: "Be Mine."

But where another person might have laughed, crumpled up the paper and tossed it in the trash, Sherry Seymour lets that first little note creep its insidious way into her mind. Soon others are arriving, each more passionate and detailed than the last. The missives begin to obsess her.

Is it because of the secret ardor they represent? Or is it simply the fact that Sherry's suddenly feeling some loneliness in her life, now that her only son has left for college and her stable, 20-year marriage to nice, reliable Jon feels a little bit stale?

In Michigan writer Laura Kasischke's newest novel, we get an exploration -- vigorous, unyielding -- of what happens to one fortysomething woman when, thanks to anonymous mash notes, she begins to feel desirable and wanted by a stranger.

But the notes are merely the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of this page-turner of a narrative (told in the risky first person, which -- luckily -- works here) deals with the aftermath of the notes, when Sherry decides to act on the surging emotions they stir within her.

Sherry meets the man she believes to be her secret admirer; Bram, a cute young instructor of auto mechanics at the college, is not her type at all, but they start an affair that, in Kasischke's unstinting prose, nearly scorches the page. Soon, Sherry can hardly recognize herself:

"I was a middle-aged English teacher carrying on with a younger man -- an auto mechanic -- making love on the floor of a student efficiency, spending a fortune on new dresses and shoes, planning my day around a cup of coffee with a stranger in the cafeteria, a rendezvous with him again at night. Still, the shame of it didn't lessen the excitement of it."

Sherry's actions -- as they inevitably must -- trip fine wires, laid like traps throughout her life and her social network, that begin to reveal one disconcerting truth after another.

Is the man she is committing adultery with the same person who left her the anonymous notes? What does her husband really know of her actions? What happened to her best friend, Sue, so long ago, to change their relationship now?

And, what exactly are the feelings of her son's childhood friend, Garrett, for her?

Every character in "Be Mine" is playing with fire, and everyone gets burned.

Kasischke, the author of three previous novels and six collections of poetry, doesn't hold back an ounce. Her sure hand is on the throttle of this novel from the very first chapters, and she ups the intensity with remorseless skill as the story moves along. Jon, Sherry's husband, turns out to be less of an accomplice than it appears. Bram, her lover, becomes obsessive about her, to the point of scariness. Garrett goes mysteriously missing. When the end of "Be Mine" finally comes -- some of the jolting climaxes expected, others less so -- it's as a relief.

We don't go so far as to wish that Sherry Seymour had just crumpled up those silly mash notes and thrown them away.

But we're certainly glad to step off this intense, claustrophobic ride.

Charity Vogel is a features reporter for The Buffalo News. e-mail: c/vogel@buffnews.com.

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Be Mine

By Laura Kasischke

Harcourt, 302 pages, $23

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