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Turtle Moon

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Alice Hoffman is the Emily Brontë of the American suburbs, a born storyteller who whispers subversive tales of passion, danger, and unreason in a world whose geometrically curved streets and manicured lawns proclaim the orderliness of life. Back in Great Neck, Long Island, ”where saleswomen don’t bother you with anything as trivial as the price until you’re already rung up and the credit card is out of your hand,” Lucy Rosen, the heroine of Hoffman’s ninth novel, Turtle Moon, had always played it safe. Wary of her late parents’ powerful sexual attachment — they’d died while making out in a car stalled on a railroad track — she married her conventional high school sweetheart, and the two commenced to bore each other half to death.

As Turtle Moon opens, Lucy and her son, Keith, have relocated to Verity, Fla., an outwardly tranquil seaside resort filled with flowering hibiscus and bargain condos that has become ”home to more divorced women from New York than any other town in the state of Florida.” As readers familiar with earlier Hoffman novels such as The Drowning Season and Seventh Heaven will anticipate, it’s also a town where all the rules of nature are provisional, save the Universal Itch. Ominous wildlife of a faintly jokey sort abounds: Flocks of escaped parakeets inhabit rooftops and baby alligators crawl into Burger King restrooms to die.

The natives, moreover, have learned to fear the month of May. ”It isn’t the humidity or even the heat, which is so fierce and sudden it can make grown men cry. Every May, when the sea turtles begin their migration across West Main Street, mistaking the glow of streetlights for the moon, people go a little bit crazy. Girls run away from home, babies cry all night, ficus hedges explode into flame, and during one particularly awful May, half a dozen rattlesnakes set themselves up in the phone booth outside the 7-Eleven and refused to budge until June.”

So hardly anybody but Lucy is astonished when her neighbor is murdered and the dead woman’s infant daughter vanishes along with Lucy’s troubled 12-year-old — a smoker and Miller Lite drinker, a truant and a thief. Or when Verity police dig up the dead woman’s wedding ring where Keith has evidently buried it. Is her son a victim or a murder suspect? Even Lucy can’t be sure. ”Maybe it was simply impossible to sleep once you had children,” she muses. ”You had to use that time to worry. You had to do it for the rest of your life.”

So what’s a mother to do? Well, for Lucy it’s time to ”forgo daylight and perfection, simple thoughts and reason,” specifically by starting a love affair with a cop. And not one of your well-groomed professional law- enforcement types either, but a homely, acne-scarred misanthrope with a juvenile record of his own. Julian Cash is a classic rough-trade Hoffman hero, a sorrowful loner who ”can’t find anything right with human beings or anything wrong with dogs.” A K9 cop, Julian works with a pair of German shepherd tracking dogs, the faithful Loretta and Arrow — a vicious brute who would have been destroyed but for his skill at finding corpses, a sort of Rin Tin Tin with an attitude.

Sentimentalities abound. ”Dogs can smell a person’s truest nature,” Hoffman assures us. Actually, a dog will curl up with Jeffrey Dahmer as readily as with St. Francis of Assisi. And literal-minded mystery fans may be annoyed that Hoffman has borrowed the structure of a crime thriller without taking its conventions very seriously. In terms of sheer storytelling magic and psychological insight, however, Alice Hoffman has created a world all her own, and Turtle Moon is one of her best. A-