It takes talent to make a love story between an AIDS victim and a convicted murderer work, but playwright/essayist Cleage (Deals with the Devil, 1993, etc.) more than meets the challenge in this gutsy, very likable fiction debut. As a teenager, Ava Johnson couldn't wait to move away from tiny Idlewild, Michigan, a lakefront village originally conceived- -and enjoyed for decades--as a resort town for people of color. Now just a half-abandoned dot on the map like any other (except that most of the residents are still black), Idlewild offers the only safe haven when Ava, now nearly 30, learns she's contracted the HIV virus and is forced to close down her hair salon in Atlanta. Telling herself she's just visiting her older sister, Joyce, for a few weeks before she moves on to San Francisco, sophisticated Ava (whose voice is always feisty and humorous, even when the subject is death) is nevertheless impressed by bighearted Joyce's efforts to help the teenaged girls in her small community. She's also intrigued by handsome, sexily ``together'' Eddie Jefferson, a once- wild childhood acquaintance who's returned to Idlewild to raise vegetables, grow dreadlocks, and practice t'ai. While giving support to Joyce as she fights her conservative church for the right to teach birth to adolescents, and assisting (a bit skeptically) when Joyce takes in an addict's abandoned baby, Ava finds herself falling hard for sensitive, nurturing Eddie. Obviously, he's interested, too--but won't he run once he learns she's carrying the virus? Ava hardly dares hope for a final chance at love, even when Eddie reveals his own terrible--and, finally, forgivable--past. Lively, topical, and fantasy-filled. Watch out, Terry McMillan. Cleage is on your tail.