Youth isn't easy for any of the young in this book, but then life is no great shakes for the older ones either. At least, that may be the reader's first lesson from this first novel. Happily, it will not be the last one, for in the end both young and old balance on the cusp of fateful steps into the future.

Rosie, an American girl with a past (and the book's sometime narrator), has come to France as an au pair to the Tivot family, who live on a Parisian houseboat. The job is tolerable: the three children are not obnoxious; their mother is cool but friendly; and their father, a hard-working, insecure doctor who looks like Abraham Lincoln, seems detached enough, certainly not the stuff of romantic dreams. Nevertheless, fleeing her own self-made tragedy, Rosie finds him attractive. For a short, forbidden time in the course of a family trip to Spain, each allows the other to fill a need hardly even acknowledged before they are discovered. The need itself recedes in the face of other more important necessities -- like understanding, with the help of an old woman who is herself on the edge of a new experience, how even the most difficult people became what they are.

Day is not heavy-handed about all this; she flits about her subject with the light touch of a hummingbird. Indeed, language seems to be her primary interest -- both in using it delicately herself, and in the psychological power it bestows on those who communicate effectively in strange countries. As for "the pleasing hour," it seems to call up the moment of special light that glows when the sun falls below the mountains. In the novel this is called "the mauve hour." Perhaps, like "red sky at night, sailors' delight," it predicts good weather ahead for all the Tivots, and Rosie too.

Maude McDaniel reviews for The Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and other major newspapers.

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