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AN INSULAR WORLD, EXQUISITELY RENDERED

EVENING:
A Novel
By Susan Minot
Knopf
264 pages, $23

Opening Susan Minot's latest book, "Evening: A Novel," put me immediately in mind of J.D. Salinger's tight little novella of the early 1960s, "Franny and Zooey," especially the "Franny" story.

"Franny" features the football weekend, at Yale, of Francis "Franny" Glass with one Lane Coutell, a cool, well-turned-out English major who dresses in Burberry, speaks with the smugness of inherited privilege, and wears a mask of gorgeous boredom. The story -- it was no more than that -- was an ironic farewell to class and manners by a writer whose growing spirituality was pulling him out of society altogether into the world he has inhabited ever since, of privacy and, for all one knows, of rigorous observance. Minot's novel flashed me back to that story, because at the heart of it is a young woman's fateful upper-crust date, sometime in the 1950s, with a man who reminds us of Lane Coutell for all his moral awareness, just as the young woman reminds us of Franny Glass, short though she is of Franny's own moral awareness.

As Ann Long (formerly Ann Grant, Ann Stackpole and Ann Katz) lies dying of cancer in a hospital room, attended by a nurse and her four children, she is possessed by a single memory, that of a romantic evening in her youth at an upper-crust wedding, in some coastal enclave of privilege near Boston. At that time she is in her early 20s, has had scant romantic experience, and is about to fall badly for a young doctor named Harris Arden, who is attending the same wedding. (That name, Harris Arden, reminds us of Lane Coutell. Watch out for men with last names for first names, at least in literature. They are accustomed to privilege.)

She feels stirred by him, as she had felt stirred by no man before, and, we gather as we read on, no man after, including her three husbands. Harris Arden has masculine presence, and women simply come on to him wherever he is. He is something beyond what she has known before: boys, and for 264 pages of this novel, Susan Minot leads us through intricate details of this first powerful romance, so powerful that Ann on her dying bed scarcely remembers the husbands at all, and the children, at the bedside though they are, are merely whispers in the shadowy background.

It was always Harris. And something else, and the something else is the social class in which this whole drama is played out.

"Evening" is a book very much about class and leisure, though not from the ironic perspective of a Salinger or his Franny, but from that of a young woman and, one begins to suspect, her inventor, who is apparently besotted by this gay world of fashion and manners, seemingly beyond time and history.

The girls were dressed in . . . narrow cocktail pants, flat shoes, little shirts which buttoned up the back and cardigan sweaters which buttoned up the front. . . . Lila Wittenborn wore a charm bracelet, Lizzie Tull a pearl necklace. Lila's cousin Eve, her hair dyed platinum since Ann last saw her, had beaded embroidery on her sweater. Ann Grant who had a horror of uniforms was wearing a Mexican shirt.

One reads cloying pages and then chapters of such exquisitely described decor, waiting for the other shoe to fall and for the story to rip off the disguises to show the dog beneath the skin. Only the dog never barks, and suddenly one realizes that one is inhabiting a world distinguished only in the details and the alcohol from a Lands' End catalog.

"Evening" has nothing to do with death or with cancer. Its purpose it seems is to allow its heroine to die a beautiful death, embroidered with luminous memories and tender regrets. Harris Arden, is, of course, a cad, who is betrothed to marry another woman whom, it seems, he has made pregnant, though Ann desires him nonetheless and takes him as a lover, while his fiancee lies asleep in a cabin nearby.

Well, people do stranger things, and none of these characters is harshly judged for their romantic confusions; it is for other reasons that Ann harbors regret. It is that after making love to her Harris falls asleep and she refuses to waken him as other guests call out his name, even after one of them has suffered a head injury. It is a last-minute darkening of a novel that up until then has been a romance set in an empty culture, populated by people who "knew how to . . . organize carpools, roast a chicken, cut back the roses, have a baby, dress the children, mix a cocktail, hoist a jib, dance a foxtrot, order in French, balance the checkbook."

One thinks of these people as a kind of ancien regime, a little twilight enclave in which manners stand instead of vitality and flirtation is the prime expression of passion. Looked at in a certain way, Susan Minot's people are as exotic as Hasidim, as unfamiliar as the Hmong, as insular as Kalihari tribesman. One might almost think of this book as ethnic fiction, as thick in regional manners as Hispanic, African-American or Lower East Side Jewish writing.

I wish I knew a little better where Minot wanted to go with this material, and why it is that bric-a-brac seems so insistently confused with life force. Try as one might to find the deep pulse in this book, one keeps coming up with taste. It is not that Minot is not a splendid writer, but only that her writing dances upon so thin a conception of life in "Evening" that all one has at the end is a painless death and some ceremonial and exquisite prose.