A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (1987) occasionally gives her gift free rein in this somewhat mechanically rendered first novel- -about a young artistic black woman and her search for self. Virginia King returns to Akron, her hometown, as an artist-in- the-schools. Her interest in classical cello has become little more than a hobby since the end of her affair with a fellow cellist; her studies of drama and mime led to a dead end because Nixon-era America had no work for a serious black actress; and the experimental puppetry troupe she worked and lived with has gone under. But now, at Washington Elementary School, everything seems at first to go her way: she all but effortlessly captivates the children, as well as a gorgeous man who wears great-smelling cologne and helps heal past disappointment. For drama, there's the revelation of a family secret, the conflict between marriage and career, and an accident to a child. In between, Virginia visits her wise grandmother, delivers essaylike disquisitions on the history and psychology of puppetry, and has serious thoughts about the cello's classical repertoire. In these sections--even the didactic ones--the author seems to care about her subject and her own words. Perhaps adherence to conventional structure and development hindered Dove's vision: the telling of Virginia's personal story often seems driven more by obligation than inspiration. Virginia worth knowing, but she's not alive enough on the page to be of interest for herself instead of just for her situation.