A compelling aspect of Alice Hoffman's novels is that they operate on a level one step removed from reality. Magic spells, omens and old wives' tales are par for the course in a Hoffman novel, giving them an appealing, fairy tale feeling.
But fairy tales usually have a touch of tragedy, and such is the case in Hoffman's 14th novel, "Blue Diary" (Putnam, 303 pages, $24.95).
The book describes Ethan and Jorie Ford, a picture-perfect couple in small-town Massachusetts. He is handsome and hardworking; she is beautiful and kindhearted. In one of many moments of overstatement, Hoffman writes that Ethan has "the stamina of two men, the good looks of three, the heart of at least half a dozen." Their 12-year-old son Collie is healthy and happy, and loves his parents.
It's easy to guess that the Fords are heading for a fall. When an author goes on and on about how utterly perfect a family is, you just know that catastrophe is around the corner. And it is: Ethan is arrested for the rape and murder of a teen-age girl 15 years earlier in Maryland. He confesses to the crime, but says he has redeemed himself through years of exemplary behavior.
Through flashbacks, Hoffman shows that Ethan really is a different person. Born Bryon Bell, as a boy he was "contrary and vain." He was a criminal who "liked things easy, and he could get downright evil when the least difficulty arose." He set fire to farmers' fields to amuse himself, drove girls to the brink of suicide when he didn't return their affections, and was generally disliked by everyone. Women were attracted to him only because he was "so handsome doves toppled out of the sky to light on his shoulders."
Hoffman raises some interesting questions about guilt, forgiveness and redemption. But the book lacks a real cohesiveness because the main characters are either too perfect or too horrible; they never seem real. The supporting characters are written with a bit more substance, but they are relegated to the sidelines.
As always, Hoffman's powers of description are excellent her lush depiction of nature and the ethereal, dreamy quality of the flashbacks are among the book's more pleasing aspects.