Hustvedt's second novel (her critically acclaimed debut, "The Blindfold," was excerpted in "The Best American Short Stories" collections of both 1990 and 1991) attempts to fuse a young woman's coming of age with grander existential ruminations spawned by the weird goings-on in a small town in Minnesota. But despite the voluptuous physical proportions of the book's heroine, Lily Dahl, the otherwise two-dimensional characters and a meandering, rather silly mystery plot result in a surprisingly flimsy work.
Lily Dahl, a 19-year-old aspiring stage actress, bears a remarkable resemblance to Marilyn Monroe (albeit a brunette version). She also suffers from the Monroe persona's male-fantasy dumbness and overall unbelievability, while exhibiting little of the legend's ephemeral charm. Lily works as a waitress at the Ideal Cafe, hang-out for the town's morosely kooky residents. Foremost among these is Lily's obviously deranged high school chum, Martin Petersen, who collects photos of corpses and missing children.
But Lily is busy with the local theater troupe and doesn't seem to notice. She is, however, often distracted by unsettling bouts of oddly timed ennui, as when, after inserting a tampon, she "had one of those sudden, curious feelings, more sensation than thought, and more familiar to children than adults, that she wasn't really there in the room at all, that she had been blown out of her own head somewhere else..." Such passages produce a promisingly eerie ambience -- but one that ultimately proves more stylish than substantial.
Lily's world is rocked by a cardboard artsy city guy, the gorgeous, 34-year-old college professor Edward Shapiro, who rents a room across the street from hers in order to paint. She seduces him by performing a strip-tease at her window (he responds by turning up his Don Giovanni), and soon enough they are lovers. Unfortunately, Lily's sudden plunge into sexuality seems geared less toward her own pleasure than to keeping lucky Edward happy.
There is also a mystery afoot. How to explain the frequent sightings of a man carrying a dead woman -- who looks like Lily -- around town? Lily finally embarks on an investigation worthy of Nancy Drew. But Hustvedt's weakness as a storyteller isn't that she unfolds a quaintly old-fashioned mystery. It's that she keeps hinting that the book's solution will be more philosophically rigorous and resonant than the simple and sad one it turns out to be.