In Real Presence, gifted novelist Bausch brought his powers of characterization and conflict together for a remarkable debut; in Take Me Back, those talents were on jagged, half-satisfying display--but still impressive and ambitious. Here, however, while there's no question that a distinctive writer is at work, Bausch seems oddly mild and unadventurous. Edward Cakes is a retired symphony violinist in his 70s--a widower, without relations (his one son killed in Korea), living in a small apartment house across the hall from a pair of noisily exuberant nurses and right underneath a college student. Then, not long after the student leaves, raging over the nurses' noise, young Mary Bellini appears at Edward's door--looking for the student, lost herself, with her few possessions and a kitten in tow. So Edward takes Mary in. And after care, compassion, and unexpected sex, she becomes the center of his life. . . only to soon disappear, all connectedness broken. This relationship, then, is a rather thin and familiar one--given a few extra shadings in the curiously disjointed vagueness of Mary's enervating character, in the timeless dignity of Edward's decorum and loneliness (which lend an air of fable to the novel). But Bausch's writing only truly comes alive in the dialogues between Edward and his old neighbor Arthur Hagood, who is now dying in a nursing home: reminiscent of Beckett's Endgame, these conversations--petulant, repetitive, harping on a few particular memories again and again, with the tactical moves of two people near the end of their playing days--are full, funny, and sad. The novel as a whole, however, is short on force or verve, avoiding the sentimentality inherent in the basic old-man/young-girl situation--but also presenting it without much color or charm.