By Emily Mead
Updated June 18, 2004 at 04:00 AM EDT

In the decade leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, Romanian emigre Farro Fescu stands sentry in the hushed marble lobby of Manhattan’s Echo Terrace apartment building, tending to his diverse flock: the entomologist’s widow who fills her rooms with exotic animals, the Belgian-Egyptian plastic surgeon who’s nearly shot by an angry gender-reassignment patient, the beautiful 19-year-old cleaner who decides to keep the baby fathered by her rapist, and the Iraqi spice merchant who befriends the world-famous quilter downstairs. Rinaldi (”The Jukebox Queen of Malta”) is a master of elegant prose and psychological insight. Though his narration sounds deceptively prim at first, Rivers gradually hypnotizes and charms, coaxing beauty from the tragic and surreal.