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Rich mix of humanity in tales of mixed-up families

Love, infidelity, death, anger, loyalty, search for identity, ties that bind and strangle, breaking those ties -- all the struggles of humanity, including warfare, lie in the family novel.

Here are three books that have something to say about the big "F."

Gorgeous Lies
By Martha McPhee
(Harcourt Inc.: New York) $25/hardcover

Martha McPhee's auspicious debut novel Bright Angel Time set the scene for this follow-up novel, following the adventures of a woman and her daughters as they leave the comfort of a staid suburban life for adventure on the road with a charismatic guru and his pack of kids.

Gorgeous Lies is the story of the dissolution of that extended family years later, opening with Anton Furey, philosopher, philanderer, father of nine, lying on his deathbed. The novel visits most of Anton's nine children, now grown, focusing primarily on his youngest love child, Alice, who Anton sees as a re-creation of himself, his wishes and dreams.

McPhee attempts to visit the theme of the failings of a charismatic father, but fails to give Anton the requisite charisma to keep us interested. The book shifts points of view with each chapter and the result is uneven -- we are often confused about who is speaking and merely distracted by the change of voice. Had McPhee stuck with the three principal characters -- Anton, Alice and Eve, her mother -- the book might have worked better. The communal experience of the big, messy family's life doesn't translate well in this messy, communal form.

Three Junes
By Julia Glass
(Pantheon Books: New York) $25/hardcover

Recently heralded as the 2002 National Book Award winner, this debut novel set in three acts is essentially the story of the McLeod family of Scotland. In the first, "June, 1989," Paul McLeod, a distinguished Scottish newspaper publisher and widowed patriarch, is on retreat in Greece, quietly grieving the failures of his long marriage.

"June, 1995," the second act, commemorates Paul's death and the gathering of his extended family for his funeral at the family home, Tealing. Eldest son Fenno, an expatriate quietly settled in Greenwhich Villlage as a bookseller, narrates, laying out the dynamics of the McLeods, including all they don't know about one another, and chronicling the slow death of the true love of his life, a fiery music critic named Malachy.

The third act resurrects a minor character who appeared briefly in the first, serendipitously uniting her with Fenno. But the power of Three Junes is concentrated in Act Two -- true pathos laced with irony and affection. The third act conveniently provides symmetry, but feels like a false construct and ultimately blunts the considerable emotional impact of the book.

Glass writes like a dream. Her editor should have trusted her rare storytelling ability and nixed the gimmicky structure.

Fall on Your Knees
By Ann-Marie MacDonald
(Pocket Books: New York) $7.98/paperback

A huge family epic, set largely on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Fall on Your Knees is about dreams thwarted and realized. First published in Canada in 1996, it became an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2001 and is an international bestseller. At 650-plus pages, it sweeps the reader from turn-of-the-century provincial Canada to the battlefields of World War I to the jazz era in New York City.

At its center are a family of women -- Mumma, Lebanese, dark and exotic, mysterious and unhappy, who dies with her head in the oven; daughter Kathleen, a child prodigy who sings like an angel and captivates poor, repressed Papa; Ambrose and Lily, fateful twins born in a bloodbath; Mercedes, the good Catholic; and Frances, the black sheep.

Fall on Your Knees moves swiftly, by turns shocking, amusing and captivating the willing reader.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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