Everyone in Jamesland, it seems, is on hold.

Alice Black waits to hear whether her lover, Nick, who is married to one of Hollywood's brightest stars, will get a divorce. Pete, a once successful but now slightly suicidal chef, marks time back in his mother's care until he can make it on his own again.

Helen Harland, a Unitarian-Universalist minister who is considered "too religious" by her congregation, delays deciding whether to go or stay in that position. And in the nursing home, Alice's Aunt Kate, a descendant of the noted 19th century psychologist William James, is still working on her 60-year-old novel about his life and generally mixing up the past with the present and her relatives with his.

Everything comes to life when Alice wakes up one night to find a deer in her house. As she tries to make sense of what appears to have been a kind of spiritual experience, she sets Pete and Helen in motion. As they get on with their lives, they probe some of the open issues of life in the 21st century, including "the variety show of religious experience." For Pete, whose psychiatrist judges his personality "incompatible with life," the question is, "How do people live in this world?" For Helen, it's "If you can't hack the Hallmark-variety God, what concept of God can you live with?" For Alice, "What else was there?" (Aunt Kate no longer needs to ask questions.) Michelle Huneven's first book, Round Rock, earned generous praise from critics, and Jamesland should too. Huneven has assembled one-of-a-kind characters attempting to make their way in an uncertain world along paths of their own choosing. And not an insignificant achievement she has produced a perfect closing sentence. We won't spoil the impact by quoting it here, but the sentence expresses conclusively the wryly amusing, tentatively profound intent of Huneven's fine novel. Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.

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