'The Third Angel' by Alice Hoffman

Novelist in harmony with spirits as she juggles past, present, love

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Alice Hoffman injects magic realism into everything she writes, and not just the conjuring of ghostly apparitions, spiritual awakenings and uncanny coincidences.

Language, plot and relationships also revolve in mystical harmony in her latest novel, which has the otherworldly elements Hoffman is known for, plus the down-to-earth struggles of characters in love or those who hunger for it.


By Alice Hoffman
Shaye Ayrehart Books ($25)


Like Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," Hoffman's tale weaves the stories of women at key moments in their lives with revelations both stunning and inevitable. At the end, I found myself going back through the pages to see if I had missed any hints of what was to come.

Threads from three stories are eventually tied together:

First, we meet resentful Maddy, who has arrived in London to see her "perfect" sister Allie marry Paul. But Paul is ill, and his sickness and Maddy's presence send the wedding plans into a frantic tailspin.

Maddy takes a room in the Lion Park Hotel where her mother, Lucy, had stayed when she was a young girl attending the wedding of her stepmother's sister. The rundown hotel has its own cast of characters, including a ghost.

Paul's adoring mother, Frieda, also spent time at the Lion Park, working as a maid and courting excitement when she might have been at college.

Back then she fell hard for Jamie, a hotel guest and would-be rock star, with requisite bad-boy appeal and a nasty drug problem.

The young Frieda also was among the few who dared to walk into room 707, where a ghostly presence would stage a nightly shout fest.

Lucy had arrived at the hotel a few years earlier as a melancholy 12-year-old mourning her mother and holding tight to her unhappiness. She wonders if she will ever believe in true love, believe in anything.

Lucy becomes entangled in a tragic love triangle before taking small steps back toward belief -- with the help of her understanding father and an unexpected kindred spirit.

The tale is a swift read at less than 300 pages, but Hoffman still packs in details that stay with the reader, such as the rabbit that lives under the desk at the Lion Park and nibbles its way into Lucy's dreams, or the purple suede jacket that Frieda wins on a bet from Jamie.

Or the tug-of-war of parent-child relationships, among the most honest statements about love in "The Third Angel."

The angel of the title is one of possibilities.

There's the Angel of Life and the Angel of Death, Dr. Lewis tells daughter Frieda when, as a youngster, she accompanies him on visits to patients.

"And then there was the Third Angel. The one who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion.

" 'It's not up to us to help the angels,' Frieda said.

" 'Isn't it?' the doctor said."

His question comes back to inform Frieda as she evaluates how she reacts to people in need and the worth of self-sacrifice.

Powerful words and ideas, like the ghost of Lion Park, can haunt one's thoughts long after the reader has turned the final page.

Post-Gazette entertainment editor Sharon Eberson can be reached at 412-263-1960 or seberson@post-gazette.com .


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