Hoffman's 'River King' has spirit to spare

The small Massachusetts town of Haddan looks like a picture postcard of a New England village. But while a river runs through it, a ghost haunts it.

The spirit is that of a misfit student from the prestigious Haddan School who recently drowned. His watery visage inexplicably appears in a photograph taken by teacher Betsy Chase. His one friend, a scholarship student from Florida named Carlin Leander, feels his presence when she swims. And she keeps finding tiny minnows and smooth stones in the pockets of his long black coat, which is always damp.

Flourishes of the fantastic swim like silvery fish through Alice Hoffman's luminous new novel "The River King," another in her stream of modern fables of loves lost and found, of sorrowful souls seeking redemption.

Flourishes of the fantastic swim like silvery fish through Alice Hoffman's luminous new novel "The River King," another in her stream of modern fables of loves lost and found, of sorrowful souls seeking redemption. Although not as powerful as "Here on Earth" nor as whimsical as "Seventh Heaven," it still melds the magical with the mundane in Hoffman's characteristically evocative fashion.

She tells us at book's beginning of the town and gown's long separation, but how the marriage of a headmaster and a beautiful village girl with a talent for growing roses might have once brought them together. The union was a thorny one, though, and Annie Howe "hanged herself from the rafters one mild evening in March, only hours before wild iris began to appear in the woods." But many of her roses continue to bloom, often past first frost, and their heady scent permeates the air, making young girls dizzy. Sometimes the flowers' fragrance wafts into the attic where Annie died, "as if roses had grown through the floorboards of the overheated hallways."

Only Helen Davis cannot smell the roses. The elderly and ailing history teacher at the school is haunted by the memory of the long-ago affair she had with Annie's husband. Increasingly frail, Helen, whose classroom formidability is legend, now is forced to accept the help of Betsy Chase and Carlin Leander. Both younger women believe themselves in love. Betsy is engaged to an unimaginative history teacher, who despises Helen, and Carlin, even though she takes pride in being a loner, is dating the most popular boy in the flood-prone school.

The drowning changes everything, mostly because it threatens to erase the invisible barrier between the village and the school. Good-looking, blue-eyed police officer Abel Grey is immediately attracted to Betsy, even as he refuses to accept the student's death as an accident or a suicide, thereby putting his job in jeopardy. Carlin knows it wasn't a suicide � those stones, those minnows, are proof. "And that's not all," she tells Abe in desperation. "I can hear him when it's quiet. It sounds like water, but I know it's him."

The puzzle of the drowning helps propel Hoffman's at times meandering narrative, but she's more interested in the mysteries of love, the crimes of the heart. This, too, is in keeping with her previous works.

Hoffman adds one little twist near the end that further enhances her novel's fairy-tale quality, its practical magic. In a summer in which a young wizard has captivated millions, "The River King" (Putnam, $23.95) is a reminder that Hoffman, too, is a writer who can cast a spell.

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