By Gillian Flynn
Updated August 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Nora Mars is the femme fatale of such ’60s and ’70s classics as ”The Diva,” a shameless starlet who tippled tremendously, devoured men, and gave a lot of lip. Marie is the tabloid reporter assigned to Nora’s deathwatch, a career neurotic whose interests include old films and quantum physics. She soon discovers her own strange attractors in Nora’s third husband, alcoholic balladeer Rex Mars, and Peter Lorre lookalike (and ”freelance intellectual”) Marco Trentadue. ”The Center of Things” is a jolly read — McPhee’s characters are wonderfully weird without straying into the cute-quirky realm. It’s also a smart one, as romance mingles with mind-swelling musings on superclusters and string theory. While the story occasionally slows under the weight of such math, the end equation is an elegant inquiry into the randomness of love and the glory of fate.