Juliet Fay's "The Shortest Way Home" (Penguin Books, 416 pages, $15) is a well mannered, fluent novel with engaging characters and the occasional witty observation, and yet ... I'll get back to that caveat.

Forty-four-year-old Sean Dolan has come back -- briefly, he thinks -- to his family home in Belham, Mass. For 26 years he's been fulfilling what he thought was God's plan for him, working as a nurse in war-torn and disease-riddled Third World countries, and haunted by the specter of the Huntington's disease that felled his mother when he was just 15. After her death, his seaman father became an alcoholic and abandoned his three children. But now Sean is burned out and God is missing in action. "God had tricked him into doing the hardest kind of work. It was embarrassing to realize he'd been gullible enough to fall for it. Pranked by God."

Knowing he was at risk for Huntington's, Sean had a vasectomy and never allowed any woman, or anyone else, to get close to him. But Belham will test his reserve. His maternal spinster Aunt Vivvy, who had raised him and his siblings "with all the warmth of a garden hose," is showing early signs of Alzheimer's, and his sister, Deirdre, an aspiring actress, is eager to leave home.

That leaves Sean to deal with Vivvy, her new giant dog, George, and his dead brother's 11-year-old son, Kevin, who has "sensory integration" problems, shying from loud sounds and other people's touch.

Hoping to leave within a few months, Sean ponders how to help his nephew, and embarks on a romance with the impossibly wonderful and wise yoga instructor Rebecca, with whom he'd palled around in high school.

To add to his newly complicated life, Sean's father reappears, sober now and hoping to make amends to the children he had run out on long ago.

He's crossing off an AA step, Sean figures cynically, but agrees to see him.

His father wants to revisit his Irish homeland and talks Sean and Kevin into going along. Despite Sean's misgivings, it turns into a bonding experience for all three, although the trip is described in rather stilted terms, more like a Times Travel Section article than a novel.

So what life will Sean choose in the end? You can probably guess, and that brings me to the reservations I have about this book. I have met these flawed yet sympathetic characters in too many other novels, and what becomes of them is utterly predictable. So the novel, while humane and likable, feels somehow unnecessary.

Brigitte Frase is a writer and book critic in Minneapolis.