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Shreve's latest romantic yarn is both pretty and pleasing

The fictional territory where Anita Shreve stakes her confident claim doesn't take us far out of everyday experience -- or, for that matter, far out of the Hallmark section.

Reunited lovers, betrayed spouses, long-lost friends, happy marrieds, unhappy marrieds, divorcees and widow(er)s of all stripes -- Shreve, an enduringly popular mainstream novelist, is most interested in the various ways the individual human heart connects with others, and in what the motivations and aftermaths of those passions look like.

In her newest novel, "Body Surfing," we get a familiar recipe: love takes a trial-tested young woman by surprise; there is a painful betrayal; finally, hope of a new love glistens at the end of the road. The resulting plateful of narrative is as appealing as Shreve -- perhaps best known as the author of "The Pilot's Wife" (an Oprah selection in 1999) -- gets. Which is to say: it's a good story, pretty and well-made as an embroidered antimacassar, but don't go expecting much in the way of literary fireworks.

Then again, not everybody wants fireworks. Some people just want a story that has some romance in it, a few plot twists, a few likable characters. Shreve scores solidly in those areas.

In this case, the young woman at the center of her story is Sydney, who, at age 29, has been once divorced and once widowed.

Looking for a change of pace, and also to put off her return to graduate school, Sydney takes a summer job with a subtly wealthy, well-positioned Edwards family of New England. Sydney is there to tutor the family's daughter, a girl with a vaguely defined backwardness of sorts, and help prepare her for college academically and emotionally. She does this while living with the family in their gorgeous vintage house on the New Hampshire shore.

Shreve aficianados will be interested to see that this house -- a glorious antique pile on the beach, and a place Sydney comes to adore -- is the same house used as a setting by Shreve in many of her novels, including "The Pilot's Wife." By setting her novels in different time periods, she is able to chronicle the stories of the people who live in this house at different points in time -- a wonderful concept.

The Edwards family has, as it turns out, two sons -- and, unsurprisingly, Jeff and Ben are quite different from one another. Ben is more serious, the driven one who seems to always get what he wants. Jeff is flashier, much more open and engaging, and soon dumps his girlfriend to pursue Sydney.

It turns out, as the plot progresses, that Jeff's motives may not be what they seem. And Ben may not be the rude old stick Sydney originally conceives him to be.

Again, it's nothing really new in the plot department. But well told, nonetheless, and destined to please Shreve fans no end.

Body Surfing

By Anita Shreve

Little, Brown

304 pages, $26

Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.

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