Poet Carpenter hits the ground running in his first novel with rich language and lofty ideals, but loses steam with a premise that becomes exhausted by the end. Penguin Solstice, a radical feminist freshman at Dartmouth, and three activist friends translate their passion for justice into arson when they torch the Beta Sig house in retaliation for a gang rape that took place there. Expelled from school, Penguin travels to Squid Harbor, Cape Cod, where her divorced father, a famous sculptor, and his 26 year-old protegee and new wife, Dorothy, are living in a seaside cabin. Unsure of her next move, Penguin accepts the invitation of long-time family friend and neighbor, distinguished Harvard professor Joshua Brand, to care for his dying lover while he's out of town. Responsibility has never before disturbed Penguin's cynical, cerebral life, but she rises to its challenge by tending well and becoming attached to her patient, Arnold Franchetti, a composer who is fighting to complete his last score before succumbing to AIDS. The plot conflict -- and the obstacle to readers' appreciation of the novel -- involves the unquestioned assumption that nobody must know of Arnold's existence or disease. When proselytizing Dorothy discovers and reveals it, the community's fearful reaction (extreme even for a late '80s setting) strains the novel's credibility. Would nobody in a small town, even friends, know about Joshua's love life? Would bohemian artists be shocked and frightened by AIDS? Aside from this big wrinkle, the novel is intelligent and strong. Literary images and devices -- the blood-carrying mosquitoes, the purple birthmark that gave Penguin her nickname, sheep -- show their effectiveness with their seams, and the trials of our scrappy heroine transform her convincingly from a self-righteous student into a thoughtful adult. The vigor and insight of the poet's pen overcomes his sometimes overwrought material in a promising debut.