Like Frederick Karl's study of Conrad, this large-scale biography begins off-puttingly--with Thurman anxiously foreshadowing the complex story to come, indulging in pretentious verbiage: ""There is in Dinesen's work and thinking a frontier--more of a fixed circle, like an embroidery hoop--that separates the wild from the domestic. Within it there is firelight and women's voices, the steam of kettles, the clockwork of women's lives. And beyond it there are passions, spaces, grandeurs; there lie wildernesses and battlefields."" But once the narrative calms down, this becomes a strong, creditable life-and-work examination, especially enlightening in its early sections. Thurman fully investigates the incalculable influences on young Karen Dinesen: that of her father Wilhelm, a suicide at 50, suffering from terminal syphilis (the same disease that would plague and kill his daughter); and that of Danish intellectual synthesizer George Brandes. She follows Karen (also called Tanne or Tanya) into her eager, flirtatious 20s--and into disappointments in love. Then, enter: Baron Bror Blixen--a hedonist whose heedless lifestyle may have attracted a young woman who felt somewhat deprived of the life-of-sensation. But what marriage to the Baron actually gave her was: a wretchedly uneconomical Kenya coffee plantation; the world of the Ngong hills, which led to Dinesen's great love for the African natives; and (thanks to the Baron) a case of venereal disease ""as bad as a trooper's"" (according to her doctor). Still, despite general unhappiness, Dinesen went on to an intense romance with Denys Finch Hatton, to write Seven Gothic Tales and Out of Africa, to thrive on her adopted continent. The misery came out, rather, back home in Denmark--where, despite success, Dinesen's life was marked by imperiousness, manipulations of friends and would-be lovers . . . and the progress of her degenerative disease. Thurman provides solid synopses of the Dinesen canon, striking the larger psychological notes. She emphasizes--somewhat over-simplistically, perhaps--the dichotomy of the life: Africa/happy, Denmark/desperate. And though this sturdy chronicle lacks the color you'll find in Dinesen's extraordinary Letters from Africa: 1914-1931, it's intelligent, readable, and reliably complete.