ONE THIN JOKE CAN'T CARRY THIRD NOVEL

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Readers of Newtonian Laura Zigman's second novel, "Dating Big Bird," have had reason to anticipate her third, "Her." Well, the wait has ended, and so should the anticipation.

Though "Dating Big Bird" was wry, funny, and semi-believable, there is painfully little to recommend in "Her," which is thin, glib, and tone-deaf. It is the story of Elise, who is not unlike the heroine in "Dating Big Bird," Ellen Franck. Elise's story is Ellen's, if "Dating Big Bird" hadn't happened, updated by a few years: She has left the swirl of New York, determined to find a more meaningful life and to have a family.

She's moved to Washington, D.C. - where Zigman lived when she wrote her previous novel - to attend graduate school, though freelance work and fond remembrances tether her to New York. One day on the D.C. shuttle, Donald sits down next to her, and a romance is kindled.

Unlike the men in "Dating Big Bird," Donald is admirable, and fairly likable. But like all men in Zigman's world, he comes with a significant flaw. In his case it is Adrienne, the one-joke burr on which "Her" is based. She is Donald's ex, and she is too perfect by plenty: impossibly gorgeous, impossibly charmed, impossibly connected. So outsized is she drawn that that's how she comes across: impossible.

That Elise feels threatened by Adrienne is fair enough, even though she should have known that no man ever walked away from a woman like that with even a shred of doubt about whether he could live with her. Though Elise can't see that, she is at least aware that she's beset by the "Evil Twins," jealousy and obsession.

But how Elise responds to the threat of Adrienne is neither believable nor entertaining. She starts on the first night she stays at Donald's place, waiting until he's asleep and then making "a quick sweep of the house [to] find a photo of this Adrienne." A foundation of the absurdity is that Elise concedes, almost in the same sentence, that Donald has given her no reason to doubt his affection. Somehow, Zigman repeats Donald's innocence four times within six pages, but she doesn't seem to take it in. Elise's behavior, which quickly encompasses lying and stalking, is beyond suspension of disbelief.

Even devoid of plausibility, such a romp could be fun if it were studded with bright language or piquant observation; Zigman showed some of both in "Dating Big Bird." But on the former count, she signals a different environment from the first page: "I had vowed, as they say, at long last, to get a grip," a stumbling and cliched sentence followed quickly with the sad news that "nothing of the sort . . . was in the cards." And on the latter, she reaches only low peaks, such as when she exposes Pilates as no more than a "high- priced stretching class."

Because she has only one riff, and it wouldn't do to reach the climax in the first chapter, Zigman subjects readers to incessant foreshadowing, sometimes on the same point a couple of pages apart. And she may want to consider treatment for parenthetical excess: What was a tendency in her earlier book has become an obsession and a crutch. Rare is the paragraph without asides, and four in proximity is not uncommon.

In the end, "Her" could not be more transparent. Before the sentence that signals the approaching climax is complete, its misdirection is obvious in concept and even in detail. It is pleasing, at least, that Zigman finishes quickly. Though it's an epitaph few novelists would spread, Zigman refreshingly told a reporter a few weeks ago, "I've never been hugely imaginative." Perhaps she was so forthcoming because she'd already read this book.