Put your faith in strangers, says David's mother, aiming for a bit of English irony, but when David does just that, the reader knows from the start that he will eventually pay for it. Still, because Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me is so beautifully written, you keep cheering for the novel's hero, hoping that felicity of expression will somehow conquer folly. No such luck.

A priest with a passion for Proust, David Anderton goes back to Scotland after 28 years in England to be with his mother in her last years. He has had only one serious romantic relationship in his life, with a young man he met at Oxford. (Flashbacks to this period are gems of British undergraduate narcissism.) Conor's death cut short an idyll David has never forgotten.

By now he has mastered his longing for closeness, finding indeed that the church might offer a refuge against temptation, somewhere to exist as a noble animal in the struggle against the nights. He thoroughly enjoys his philosophical exchanges with Mrs. Poole, the rectory housekeeper, whose independent mind and ability to keep up her side in any average intellectual discussion run away with this novel.

Insufficiently given to examining his own motivations, the usually passive Father David one night drinks too much to police his desires as usual, and makes advances to a young hooligan whom he has befriended. This turns out to be the ruination of his career; no surprise, as one has seen him all-too-tepidly protest the young folks' deliberately destructive behavior.

It's the writing that stars here an ear for dialogue, and nuance in single sentences lit by unexpected insights. (David's late father would have thought going into the priesthood was a grand and unnecessary bid for an idealism too proud to accommodate the facts. ) Scottish writer O'Hagan is a widely recognized young author whose previous three novels have reaped acclaim and several honors. His conclusion here, that one cannot choose whom to love, is arguable, but the author's arrival at it remains a thing of joy and promises much for the future. Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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