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Author's first novel is rich summer reading

Well, I guess that's about all I can expect out of Summer 2007. Is it Labor Day yet?

Because now, with the arrival of Ellen Baker's "Keeping the House," I've had my two great warmweather reads - and that's probably all anyone can reasonably hope for.

To recap: The first, a few weeks back, was JoeAnn Hart's "Addled," which amply filled that summer craving we all get for biting humor and caustic social commentary, with its outlandish tale of WASP-y misbehavior at a ritzy New England country club.

Now, with "Keeping the House," here comes an equally lovely book in a wholly different genre - a long, complex, heartbreaking literary novel, which tells the story of a "cursed" old house in Pine Rapids, Wis., and the multigenerational American family that lives there - and falls apart, gradually and irrevocably, over a period spanning two world wars.

Both of these novels are wonderful reads - the kind that make you rush through the dinner dishes or home from work so you can get to them quicker. And, terrifically, both are by younger women writers from whom we can expect a lot more. Baker, who lives in Wisconsin and works at an independent bookstore, especially marks out a great future for herself in this, her first novel.

In "Keeping the House" - isn't that cover art, of an antique clothespin, just brilliant? - Baker presents us with an old house and then weaves the story of a family through it like so much colored thread. We meet the men and women who swirl around this 19th-century structure from the 1890s through 1950. Their lives are complicated, unpredictable things (some of the plot twists here strain credulity, truth be told) especially one involving near-incest and another a scene of semi-rape - but because the characters at the heart of the book are so richly human, we don't mind that. In fact, we begin to believe in these people, full of flaws - and unexpected graces - as they are.

Two of Baker's main female characters are Wilma Michelson, a bride who arrives in Wisconsin from the East in 1896 on the arm of her new husband, John, only to find herself falling in love with his younger brother, Gust; and Dolly Magnuson, likewise a young bride when she arrives in Pine Rapids in 1950 with her husband, Byron, a Chrysler salesman who seems to show less and less interest in Dolly as the months pass. Wilma and Dolly share parallel stories, in which Dolly seeks out the truth about Wilma's life - and the destruction of the Michelson family - even as her own marriage to Byron falters.

A hint about the ending: One woman chooses to stay with her husband, and one doesn't - and the book will keep you guessing up until the last few pages who does what.

Intriguingly, Baker, unlike many novelists, doesn't seem to favor either her male or her female characters; all are humanely and minutely rendered, and she shows sympathy and insight on both sides of the gender divide.

As for Dolly, Byron and their 1950s home: If you thought novelist Michael Cunningham crafted a fine example of 1950s womanhood in the persona of housewife Laura Brown in "The Hours," then you will definitely want to check out Baker's book for the character of Dolly Magnuson alone. Baker surpasses Cunningham, in this reader's opinion, in her detailed and accurate depiction of the daily life of an American wife of the post-World War II period. Laura Brown read Virginia Woolf in bed, while Dolly devours the Ladies' Home Journal and Cherry Ames stories - enough said. (And kudos to Baker for that, by the way. It seems that she worked for a time as the curator of a World War II museum in Wisconsin, and her obvious interest and hard-won research shows itself off beautifully here.)

As for male characters, Baker shapes a moving tale of middle-Western boys and men caught up in two great wars halfway across the world - and, in her portrait of the ways in which these war experiences change these men, she renders tribute to all veterans. Her JJ Michelson, in particular, comes home from fighting in the South Pacific in 1945 missing part of a leg, but also part of his soul - and his pain, which he soothes with alcohol, is haunting.

Do yourself a major favor at the bookstore this summer: Pick up Ellen Baker's "Keeping the House" and start reading. Don't be surprised if you can't put it down. For hot summer nights, American fiction just doesn't get any better than this.

Charity Vogel is a News features reporter.

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Keeping the House

By Ellen Baker

Random House, 528 pages, $25

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