An aging but charismatic actor moves in next door to a couple whose marriage is already in trouble.
Hester Kaplan's novel "The Tell" occupies that peculiar literary middle earth where everything is about relationships enacted against a history that has shaped the characters to respond in significant ways to problems put in their paths. In this case, the characters are a married couple, Mira Thrasher and Owen Brewer ("Thrasher and Brewer," another character says, "like exhibits in the Museum of Industry"), occupying a multi-storied old house in Providence. Mira inherited the house at a youthful age when her parents -- days after Mira had revealed her father's affair with her mother's best friend -- died in a car accident.
What sets the story in motion is the appearance of a superannuated television star (whose decades-old show, "Ancient Times," Mira has taken to watching to outwait her insomnia), Wilton Deere. (The character he played was called Bruno Macon, and Owen wonders of the "real" name: "Was that any more of an authentic name?") Wilton has purchased the equally wonderful Victorian house next door, in order to be closer to Anya, his only child, whom he'd abandoned early on under circumstances that have colored his entire life with guilt.
Of guilt, there's plenty to go around. Owen, a teacher in a pitifully disadvantaged school, has never quite recovered from what he sees as his craven response to a confrontation in a restaurant that left him alive and his girlfriend dead. Mira, of course, blames herself for her parents' accident, coming as soon as it did after her revelation. And Wilton? Well, you'll have to read the story to find out.
Wilton, who hardly seems charming enough to merit the fascination and devotion he inspires, hopes to entice his estranged daughter, who is studying medicine in Providence. He takes up with a highly susceptible Mira, who becomes addicted to playing slot machines at a regional casino, thus souring her relationship with Owen as the secrets multiply. Add in Anya, who becomes involved in some ambiguous way with Owen, and Owen's father, who, after a lifetime alone, has become involved with a woman, and everyone in the story is ready to be nudged -- or shoved -- out of his or her accustomed position.
Although there's something mildly stagy about the whole business, the characters on stage are crafted impeccably and the language is heightened to the point of being believable but highly wrought enough to distinguish it from the everyday. "The air shifted," the book reads at one point, "disgruntled when he opened and closed doors on the privacy of objects," and this somehow sums up the story's protocol, focused as it is on the things Mira has inherited, which surround her and Owen in her parents' house, and the things Wilton accumulates, preparing for his daughter, and the natural objects that Owen's father collects -- all collecting, and collecting meaning, while the characters try to discover what that is, and to measure its value, in their appraisal and reconfiguring of their own all-too-fictional lives.
Ellen Akins teaches in the MFA program of Fairleigh Dickinson University. She lives in northern Wisconsin.