When Madeline and Aaron marry, they have a right to expect that life will yield up its customary variety of experiences. Instead, early on, a biking accident returns Madeline permanently to a childhood that is a freakish, repetitive parody of the universal desire to stay young forever. Youth out of sequence becomes a bizarre burden on everyone involved, and especially on Aaron's second wife, Julia, who gives Madeline the mother's care and attention she needs for the rest of her life. Being the younger siblings in this situation isn't easy either, as Julia and Aaron's children discover through the years. Hardships are of a certain kind that being more or less one age indefinitely meant a person had to face the same sorrows, the sadness always fresh. What's more, it all goes on against the background of a normal chronology in the lives of those about her.

Recounted in rather dense prose by one of those siblings, Mac, this is a story (ranging over two generations from the 1940s to the new millennium) of human relationships, as indeed most books are. Still, in this case, the relationships loom large, and each character, except Madeline, matures in connection with the others, as their ties flex with the years.

Inspired by Elizabeth Spencer's 1960 novel The Light in the Piazza, Jane Hamilton moves far beyond that original premise to give readers still another in a series of thoughtful and varied (and in several cases, like The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World, prize-winning) novels. With her gift of uncovering layers of motivation, Hamilton also occasionally touches on a vein of humor just below the surface. (After a suffocating encounter with another family's funeral, Mac remarks, How relieved we were to find ourselves back in our own story! ) Hamilton does not solve the enigmas and puzzles that signify human interaction, but, here, just taking gentle note of them is a triumph in itself. Maude McDaniel writes from Maryland.

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