After the story collection Mourning Doves (1993), first-timer Troy offers a peek at small- town lives that could easily have become melodrama but that, thanks to her sureness of touch and tone, pulls off the trick of staying both moving and real. Living in her hometown of Venus, Kansas (pop. 4,600), late 30ish Holly Parker is divorced, has a 16-year-old son who's going out with his own ex-teacher Crystal (twice his age), and hair that ``was beginning to streak with gray.'' None of this keeps Holly's spirits down (not permanently) or dulls her natural gift of the droll and acerbic--even though she has been thinking about death a lot lately. This isn't surprising, since just this past spring her best friend Marvelle Holman's husband committed suicide--a Vietnam vet who, at 50, never got out of his depression after coming home, choosing to tinker with his old motorcycle over doing much of anything with people. ``The funeral was a disaster,'' says Holly at the start, lamenting that more people hadn't come to pay their respects (the local paper had got the time wrong). But at least Gene Rollison arrives, the state trooper who's quiet, good-looking, unpretentious--and available. And so the novel, starting in death, will end up with love between Gene Rollison and somebody new. Maybe it'll be Holly, maybe Marvelle, maybe even Sue-Ellis, the dress-busting ex-dancer who also works as a waitress with the other two at the Hearth restaurant. Along the way will be a heart attack, another death, and a rich handful of local people who remain captivating, amusing, and real without ever becoming bumpkins--the undertaker, the veterinarian, even the preacher Franklin Sanders (`` `How do you spell ecumenical?' Franklin asked''). Quietly genuine, light of touch, deftly amusing, without a false note to be heard throughout. If only all tiny towns had such people in them, and so auspicious a writer as Troy to paint them for us.