<b>Did she or didn't she?</b>Pam Lewis' suspenseful first novel, <b>Speak Softly, She Can Hear</b>, opens with an incident that spirals into the macabre. Two teenaged girls who attend a posh school in New York have planned to use a ski trip to Stowe, Vermont, as a cover for a liaison with an aspiring actor who has agreed to deflower them. Carole Mason is an intelligent but self-conscious girl. Her friend Naomi is the edgy product of a flamboyantly dysfunctional family. The actor is named Eddie, and from the start it's clear that he's bad news.
After Eddie and Carole have had sex at a seedy motor lodge, another woman named Rita shows up. Eddie tries to involve the drunk Carole in a threesome, but she ends up instead crouching clumsily at the head of the bed, more in the way than intimately involved. Suddenly, Eddie breaks through Carole's drunken haze, announcing that Rita is dead and claiming Carole has somehow broken her neck. After Naomi shows up, the three of them drag Rita's corpse into the woods behind the motor lodge, where they bury it in the deep snow.
Carole can never clearly reconstruct how she might have killed Rita, and since the story is told from her point of view, the reader shares her confusion. For the rest of the novel, Carole tries to get away from the memory of that night and from Eddie and Naomi, but she somehow keeps circling back to it and to them. Without any explanation to her parents, she drops out of Vassar, goes across the country to the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, and then comes back to settle in Montpelier, Vermont. There she opens a restaurant called Chacha's and falls in love with a black man named Will. The author cleverly integrates the suspense elements of the story with a perceptive depiction of the social and political tumult of the '60s. The dramatic climax is not entirely a surprise, and the resolution is a little too neat, but Lewis' skill in depicting character, incident and milieu make this a very promising debut. <i>Martin Kich is a professor at Wright State University.</i>