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Originally published Sunday, September 23, 2012 at 5:01 AM

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'The Constant Heart': Beware the devotion of a complicated woman

Craig Nova's 13th novel, "The Constant Heart," tells the story of a man with a years-long love for a very complicated woman.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The Constant Heart'

by Craig Nova

Counterpoint, 326 pp., $25

Craig Nova ("The Good Son," "Tornado Alley") has depicted femmes fatales in his fiction before.

But he's never come up with anyone quite like teenage cynic Sara, to whom his new novel's narrator, Jake, is inordinately (but all too understandably) devoted.

"The Constant Heart," Nova's 13th novel, tells the story of Jake and Sara's thwarted mutual attraction over a number of years. It also traces the loving bond between Jake and his father across the same stretch of time. And, in a move that couldn't be less politically correct, it weighs the probity of honest men (Jake and his father) against the waywardness of some women (Jake's mother, for one).

Nova states his agenda right on the opening page of the narrative.

"It's about time someone talked about what it's like to be a man now," Jake says, "and how even the term 'man' has become a dirty word."

The type of man Jake's talking about is not "a rapist, a thug, a wife beater" or someone "infantilized by video games," but someone who "wants to do the right thing, no matter what."

Jake and his father are, persuasively, such sterling characters. By contrast, Jake's mother, intent on fleeing her small town in upstate New York for an ashram in California, is capricious to the point of caricature.

But Sara is a different and more complex story.

She comes from a traumatic background (her mother's in jail for murdering her father) and she's drawn to Jake's home as a sane sanctuary away from the halfway house (the "Gulag") where she's been consigned for her delinquent behavior.

Her corrosive early-life experience has made her skeptical about everything life hands her — including Jake's devotion. But she's also enterprising, whether in the zany schemes she tries to lure Jake into as a teenager or, later, in her successful career as a car dealer with a semi-illegal modus operandi.

Nova, in classic film-noir fashion, nails her character in a single line when she quips, early on in the book: "Why, Jake, you're honorable. Dangerous stuff."

Jake, despite the odds, thinks he can be a good influence on her. His kindhearted father is an even more steadying presence, and Sara's at her best in his company. But Jake's heart is not the only "constant" in Nova's narrative.

Jake, as a future astronomer, is fascinated by Einstein's Constant, "a mathematical sleight of hand" that may have bearing on the rate at which galaxies are accelerating "beyond the horizon of observation." Jake's obsession with the stars is shared by Sara, and that obsession is linked intuitively by Jake with his sense of fate: "that elusive moment when disaster sends its first calling card."

Honor, destiny, caprice, oblivion — Nova's novel parlays them all into a life-and-death struggle filled with moments (a surreal appliance-store holdup, a good-guys/bad-guys chase across the wilds of upstate New York) that feel as elemental as they are revealing of human foible and character.

Michael Upchurch is The Seattle Times arts writer: mupchurch@seattletimes.com

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