In her sweet first novel, Donoghue (Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668-1801, not reviewed) writes clearly but never plainly about Maria, a young woman from the country who comes to Dublin to begin college. Maria (pronounced with a long i to rhyme with ""pariah"") has the usual struggles in her early university days, but these scenes are refreshed by her lack of guile and by Donoghue's prose, which never condescends -- even when Maria is too naive to catch on immediately to the lesbian relationship between her two female roommates, despite some obvious signs. Eventually she surprises them in a kiss and, though shocked, stays on. One, Ruth, becomes almost a substitute mother for her, teaching her to cook and taking her to her women's group. Jael is more confrontational and less of a homebody, but she too warms up to Maria, whose growing acceptance of their sexuality coincides with some exploration of her own. With the encouragement of her friend Yvonne, a cheerful man-hunting fellow freshman, she halfheartedly pursues crushes, first on a brooding, pony-tailed man in her art history class, and then on an American visiting for a semester from Brooklyn who runs the lighting for a theater production for which Maria is on the stage crew. Mostly Maria worries about figuring herself out, since she has never before had a chance to decide what she likes. Slowly she begins to build an identity. On a visit home with Yvonne she feels embarrassed by her little brothers and by her parents' provincial life. Drifting away from her church upbringing, she muses about how ""automatic"" it was to attend church on Holy Days of Obligation at home, because the whole village went, while in Dublin such days simply slip her mind. Donoghue deftly separates her novel from the usual coming-of-age fare with gentle language and a winningly intelligent protagonist.