A vividly and affectionately detailed picture of Israeli village life--and of what might be called a JulyOctober relationship--by acclaimed essayist and novelist Oz (Under This Blazing Light, 1995; Fima, 1993, etc.). The story is set in 1989 in the desert town of Tel-Kedar and is concerned primarily with the relationship between its two principal characters: Theo, a reflective and patient 60-year-old engineer (who was one of the builders of Tel-Kedar), and his more volatile counterpart and lover, 40ish Noa, a busy teacher of literature who also burns up energy with countless community obligations (``It is . . . my ambition to serve the Good . . . not with gushing emotion but with supreme precision''). The novel begins with a superabundance of plot, as the death (perhaps by drug overdose) of one of Noa's students brings to the village the late boy's father, a ``military adviser'' long stationed elsewhere whose neglect of his son motivates him to bankroll a drug-rehabilitation center for young people--a project that Noa is enlisted to head. Her reluctant efforts draw in the amused Theo, involve the unwise purchase of a ``derelict building,'' and necessitate the couple's continuing involvement with a colorfully portrayed bevy of townspeople, most notably the canny woman mayor Batsheva Dinur and local businessman and hustler Muki Peleg (a ``middle-aged lamb . . . trying hard to be a wolf''). Oz handles this pattern of events adroitly, but it pales by contrast with the novel's far richer revelations--in Theo's and Noa's alternating narratives as well as in occasional omniscient chapters, set both now and in flashback, about the unconventional hero and heroine's past history and present amorous dÇtente. Imagine an easygoing Othello matched with a somewhat younger Cleopatra, each gifted with the quicksilver wit of Beatrice and Benedick, and you'll have some sense of the gently mocking, life-affirming energy that suffuses their union. A perfectly pitched comedy, expertly translated, and one of Oz's most attractive and accomplished books.