Lamb in Love by Carrie Brown
(Bantam, $11.95, G) ISBN 0-553-38085-0
****
Tired of romances filled with cowboys and undercover policemen? Not interested in florid sex scenes? Ready to be charmed but not hit over the head? Experience Lamb in Love. Lifelong bachelor Norris Lamb is the postmaster for the small English village of Hursley. His life is routine and unremarkable. But one night in 1969, at the same time that Apollo 11 makes its historic moon landing, Norris steps outside and sees something wondrously unexpected. It is fellow villager Vida Stephens, dancing naked in the moonlight. Instantly, Norris falls deeply in love for the first time in his 55 years.

Norris and Vida have known each other as acquaintances in Hursley, but have exchanged little more than polite pleasantries. Yet Norris is fully committed to his new feelings, and he quickly devises a plan to court the object of his affection.

Meanwhile, Vida Stephens is unaware that she is inspiring such ardor. For the past 20 years she has been caretaker and surrogate mother to Manford Perry, who has been severely disabled since birth. Manford's mother died in childbirth and his American father travels constantly to avoid the grotesque reminder of his wife's death. Manford cannot speak, catch a ball or clap his hands, yet Vida loves him with a fierce protectiveness. Caring for Manford has consumed her entire life, so she is totally unprepared to become the target of Norris' ardent, anonymous suit. When mysterious love tokens appear, Vida is more confused than joyous. Could someone really love her, 42-year old Vida, spinster with no discernable talent? Or is someone playing a cruel joke on her?

This gentle novel reminded me of the movie Marty, which also featured two characters who believed that love had passed them by. They're the total opposite of the glamorous, facile characters who inhabit a Judith Krantz novel -- and far more appealing. It's particularly delightful to watch Norris as he experiences passion for the first time and discovers that many other aspects of his life are energized by his emotions. He even has to slay a few metaphorical dragons for his ladylove. And in the end, he realizes that love sometimes requires selfless sacrifice.

Carrie Brown, in her second novel, displays great affection for her characters. The concept of a fussy middle-aged postmaster falling in love could have been played for broad laughter, but Brown's style invites empathy and an indulgent smile instead. She even gives Manford his dignity and an important role to play in Norris and Vida's awkward romance.

Lamb in Love isn't for everyone -- it's slow-moving and extremely subtle, as only a novel in which the main characters still refer to each other by their last names at the conclusion could be. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful, suggesting that love can find any and all of us. The novel accomplishes this message without the excessive mawkishness that is so nauseatingly apparent in much popular fiction. If you're a reader who likes to "stop and smell the roses" occasionally, you will no doubt be charmed by Lamb, Vida and Manford.

--Susan Scribner


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