'Probable Future' takes turn toward improbable

Mystical forces are always at work in Alice Hoffman's novels -- her characters respect omens, keep talismans and are driven by powers lurking just below the surface.

In "The Probable Future," generations of women in the Sparrow family are blessed -- or cursed -- on their 13th birthdays with strange gifts, such as an immunity to pain or the power to detect a lie.

Stella, the 13-year-old at the center of Hoffman's latest novel, has the most disturbing gift: She can foresee the moment of a person's death.

The clairvoyance gets her into trouble almost from the outset. While eating dinner with her father, Will, in a restaurant, Stella senses that a woman at a nearby table will be murdered in her bedroom.

Stella insists that Will warn the woman of her impending doom, and he does so grudgingly; he doesn't believe in Stella's gift.

Neither, it seems, does the woman. She's found dead the next day, and Will is hauled into jail on suspicion of murder.

At this point in the book -- and it's only about 50 pages in -- the plot begins to lose its momentum. Stella and her mother, Jenny, hide from the teeming media in the Massachusetts village of Unity where Jenny grew up.

The action fizzles out -- no more corpses, no more truly scary predictions -- and the novel veers into family drama. The relationship between Jenny and Stella unravels when they move in with Elinor Sparrow, Jenny's mother.

It's easy to be disappointed by the book's turn. Just when it's about to get juicy -- a man is falsely accused of murder! His daughter has special powers! -- Hoffman opens the next chapter with this:

"Three women in the same family fixing a meal in one kitchen could only mean trouble. Even at breakfast, problems were sure to arise. Someone was bound to prefer hard-boiled eggs to fried."

Food preferences are the least of this family's problems, but the abrupt change is disconcerting and feels like the start of a whole new book. And in many ways, it is.

As often happens in Hoffman's literary world, true love trumps all in Unity -- even magic and decades of stony silence among family members.

Hoffman's fans will probably find this book satisfying -- her lush descriptions of small-town life and bewitching long-lost loves are here, as they were in her other novels. But therein lies the problem.

The start of "The Probable Future" felt as if it could be something new from an author who's written 16 books; it ends up feeling as if she's simply revisiting past themes.


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