A Family On The Trail Of Utopia

MARTHA MCPHEE'S debut novel is the sort of book everybody is rushing not to publish these days: smart, literary and probably never coming to a theater near you. Bright Angel Time (Random House. $23) is set in the early '70s and focuses on 8-year-old Kate. Kate's father has run off. Her mother has fallen for Anton, a roving therapist who leads a search for utopia in his turquoise camper. "Bright Angel" is a gorgeous novel with subtle things to say about America in the wake of the first divorce boom. It's about trying to make new families out of spare parts, about the desire for abandon and the need for order. McPhee, 32, writes such lovely sentences that you want to do more than just underline them: you want to cut them out.

McPhee, daughter of the esteemed literary journalist John McPhee, grew up outside Princeton, N.J., and now lives in Manhattan. Her parents divorced when she was 4. At the time, the McPhees were putting up the struggling screenwriter Bo Goldman and his family. Goldman later wrote 1982's "Shoot the Moon," a brutal divorce movie about a famed nonfiction writer. Gossip flew. McPhee considers the film fiction and insists seeing it wasn't devastating: "Frankly, "Kramer vs. Kramer' was much more disturbing to me."

McPhee studied Italian literature and art history at Bowdoin. Later she attended Columbia grad school, worked for the international literary scout Maria Campbell and did odd jobs Campbell found for her--including a plum gig translating the pope's "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" into English with her sister Jenny. Now McPhee's in the throes of writing a second novel, though she admits, "Sometimes I'd rather be out in the world, running around Morocco with my husband." But she's too good to quit. Her husband, Mark Svenvold, is a poet. That makes two of them.

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