<B>Zippy' author goes home again</B> Reeling from a failed romance, Langston Haverman ditches her Ph.

D. oral exams walking right out of the culmination of a decade of schooling. She returns to her parents' home in rural Haddington, Indiana, just in time for the funeral of her childhood friend Alice. She refuses to hear the circumstances of Alice's death, convincing herself that cancer, not horrific violence, claimed her friend's life and left her two young daughters orphaned.

But then, Langston is the master of avoidance. Almost 30, she has never even asked her parents about her own name, the literary scholar in her cringing at the possibility that they co-opted the name of a brilliant Harlem Renaissance poet for their white baby girl. She shuns friendship and most of the inhabitants of Haddington, including the strangely appealing local minister, Amos Townsend, who tries to befriend her.

What really happened to Alice, and the consequences that arise from her death, is the basis of Haven Kimmel's immensely powerful debut novel, <B>The Solace of Leaving Early</B>. Kimmel's delicious 2001 memoir <I>A Girl Named Zippy</I> detailed her own Indiana upbringing and proved her skill at capturing the quirks of small-town America. From the local gossips dishing at the diner to the grouchy waitress pouring their coffee, Kimmel deftly populates her new story with colorful and believable characters.

Out of school and out of work, Langston is placed in charge of Alice's traumatized daughters, who claim to talk with the Virgin Mary via a dogwood tree in their grandmother's backyard. Driving the girls to their daily therapy sessions is a far cry from Langston's imagined future as a professor on some prestigious campus. Amos tries to help, but he's wrestling with his own spiritual doubts in the wake of Alice's death, which he couldn't prevent even as he saw it coming.

Equal parts heartbreak and hilarity (witness the misplaced Langston trying to order an organic breakfast from an eggs-and-bacon-slinging waitress), <B>The Solace of Leaving Early</B> is a beautiful meditation on what it means to be home, and how home can be found in the most unexpected places. <I>Amy Scribner writes from Washington, D.C.</I>

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