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Originally published Friday, April 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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In "The Third Angel," ghosts, angels — and the past and present — meet

This is a novel that's really three interlocking novellas, each self-contained yet cleverly linked to the others. And like much of Alice...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

Alice Hoffman

The author will read from "The Third Angel" at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Microsoft Auditorium of the Seattle Central Library branch, 1000 Fourth Ave., co-presented by Elliott Bay Book Co. and the Washington Center for the Book, free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org); and at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park; free (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

This is a novel that's really three interlocking novellas, each self-contained yet cleverly linked to the others. And like much of Alice Hoffman's work ("Practical Magic," "Seventh Heaven"), "The Third Angel" manages to be about both heartbreak in love and also the triumph of hope.

The three episodes of "The Third Angel" (Shaye Areheart Books, 288 pp., $25) are set in 1999, 1966 and 1952, as the reader travels back in time and learns why Room 707 of the Lion Park Hotel in London is haunted — by ghosts with angry voices that always begin shouting around 10:30 p.m. Not until the third episode do we realize why, nor do we understand why the elderly Teddy Healy is sitting in the hotel bar every evening, drinking too much.

In the opening tale, American attorney Maddie arrives at the Lion Park in quite a state: "madly, horribly, irresistibly in love with the wrong man," her sister Allie's fiancé Paul. Desperate illness, which plays a part in all three episodes in "The Third Angel," strikes Paul, echoing the devastating effects of the sisters' earlier childhood trauma over their mother's cancer.

The second part goes back in time 33 years to the youthful misdemeanors of Paul's future mother, Frieda, a doctor's daughter. Frieda chucks her university opportunities to work as a chambermaid in the Lion Park Hotel, where a ghost is said to haunt Room 707. She tries to act as muse and savior to a charismatic heroin-addicted rock musician, with predictably disastrous consequences.

Accompanying her kindly, philosophical father on house calls, Frieda learns the doctor's philosophy about angels. There's the Angel of Death and the Angel of Life, riding along in the car, and sometimes one of them gets out of the car and follows you inside. And then there's the Third Angel, whom Hoffman calls "the one who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion." It is the exercise of empathy and forgiveness that's the center of Hoffman's novel, as her characters (including, most memorably, the haunted Teddy Healy) reach out to the Third Angels in their lives.

The final episode, set in 1952, is Lucy's story — the precocious and bookish 12-year-old whose father and stepmother are dragging her to London for the wedding of the stepmother's sister, Bryn. (Lucy is linked to the first episode because she will later become the mother of the two sisters, Maddie and Allie.) It is Lucy's experience that finally explains the horrific events at the Lion Park Hotel and the subsequent haunting on the seventh floor.

Caught up in a romantic triangle by accident, young Lucy acts as the go-between, delivering letters between bride-to-be Bryn and her wildly unsuitable ex-husband, Michael, with whom Bryn is still besotted. It is Teddy Healy whom Bryn is supposed to marry, however, and when one of the illicit love letters from Bryn to Michael falls into the wrong hands, disaster ensues.

But not only disaster. While Lucy blames herself for the tragedy, Hoffman gives Lucy her own Third Angel, whom one character describes only as "a man somewhere who wanted you to believe in something." In this touching, affecting novel about love gone wrong, there's still a chance for things to go miraculously right.

Melinda Bargreen is the classical-music critic for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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