SOLITARY PLACES by Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder (Putnam: $22.95; 287 pp.) The townspeople of Collier, Va., are furious about the landfill importing out-of-state trash right across from their cemetery. The smell is terrible, fish are dying and as many as a hundred trucks a day rumble across the tiny road leading to the dump. Told from four different points of view, Joan Vannorsdall Schroeder's first novel, "Solitary Places," chronicles Collier's fight to close the landfill along with the interior fights of the various characters as they come to terms with everything from absent parents to Alzheimer's.
Structurally, Schroeder is terrific. She has an unerring sense of when to switch voices, when to withhold information, and how to keep many different plot-irons on the fire simultaneously. The characters, however, are not as successful. One problem is simply the way they are introduced. Not including Patsy Cline who is a cat, Schroeder gives us 10 characters in the first five pages, making it hard to get to know them, and even harder to care. Twenty pages later, when everyone has finally sorted themselves out, we are left with people who are easily described in three adjectives. Reba Walker, the leader of the fight to close the dump, is tough, angry and bitter. Her childhood rival, Sarah Rose McComb, is sad, sweet and fragile. Yes, these characters are perfectly realistic, but one may miss the quirks and contradictions that make people interesting. "Solitary Places" is a friendly, low-risk book with a satisfying plot, and some wonderfully specific, original descriptions of the landfill. It is too bad Schroeder's characters don't pulse with that same odd life.