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Monday, April 15, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Oxygen' falls short of Miller's best novels

Special to The Seattle Times

"Oxygen"


by Andrew Miller
Harcourt, $24
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Unlike his first two novels ("Casanova in Love" and the extraordinary "Ingenious Pain"), which were set in the 18th century, British novelist Andrew Miller's latest work of fiction is a contemporary one. It's a humane, richly imagined and deeply felt tale, but not of the caliber of his previous works.

Strong-willed and somewhat intimidating Alice Valentine is dying of lung cancer, and her two grown sons return to their family home in rural England to see her through her last days. Alec, the younger, is a literary translator. Insecure and introverted, and made more so by his mother's impending death, Alec is teetering on the edge of another nervous breakdown.

Older brother Larry, ex-tennis star and for a while a big hit as a British doctor in an American television soap, is seen by all as the savior who will put everything in order — and if not actually save the old woman, at least ease her suffering. But Larry has his own problems: drugs, alcohol, a crumbling marriage and an acting career on the skids. His 6-year-old daughter is in therapy, and his wife seems more interested in her Zen practice than in their marriage.

Meanwhile in Paris, Hungarian exile and playwright Láslo Lázár is undergoing a mild crisis of his own. Lázár has a good life, a devoted companion, close friends and a successful literary career; but he's haunted by memories of his actions during the Hungarian uprising in 1956. (Lázár's connection to the other story: Alec is translating Lázár's play, "Oxygène," from French into English.)

Miller's strengths in this novel are his characters' rich interior lives — he peers deep into the hearts and minds of Alice, Alec, Larry and Lázár. But, while certain scenes are rendered beautifully and lucidly, nothing here compares to the startling vividness of his two earlier novels.

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