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Here is a novel called Benevolence that is really about longing.

Everyone in this book wants: the main characters - Ben, a psychiatrist, and his psychologist wife, Renata - and their satellites: Ben's widowed mother, Molly; her long-ago secret lover, Saul; and Renata's client, Stella, whose husband was killed in a train crash. This is as it should be, of course: Only the dead want nothing. The trick comes in accepting that, in opening yourself up to longing, you open yourself to pain.

Renata, 40, and Ben, 53, are well connected to pain. A bee-busy urban couple, they are frazzled and exhausted, heartsick too, for their various reasons. They've been married nine years and want a child, but they cannot conceive - not, as might be assumed, because they are too busy to have sex but because, among other things, they cannot relax. ("No time for that," barks Ben at a well-meaning friend.) Connoisseurs of the takeout circuit, they meet nightly in discordant non-communion over containers of kimchee and ribs. These they share with each other; their thoughts, feelings, wishes and needs they keep to themselves.

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An organ-transplant psychiatrist, Ben makes life-and-death decisions about who will receive, and who can donate, potentially life-giving organs. He dislikes his God-like powers: "It was always in his mind, that fist-in-your-face awareness of what your assessments meant." He wants, passionately, to write poetry, which he refers to as a "longstanding hobby" but which is the meaning of his life. In fact, he does write it, in his head sometimes, sometimes when he is (ostensibly) talking to his wife; his real life is in his head, unspoken and unshared.

Ben's unhappiness makes him desperate to find goodness -- in the world, in others - and he appears to have found it in Arthur, a retired man who wants to donate a kidney to his neighbour, apparently from purely altruistic motives. Their growing friendship assumes profound meaning for Ben, but so precious is his find ("for who doesn't want to believe in benevolence?") he won't share it with anyone, not even his wife, which increases the distance between them.

Renata is acutely alive to that distance, and longs as keenly for the closeness they once shared as she longs for a child. For intelligent people who apparently share the same goal, they have an inordinately hard time even articulating, never mind achieving, it. "Can't we discuss this?" Ben pleads against the (locked) door of the bedroom that Renata has flounced into. "Given our training, we ought to be able to communicate openly."

I think, but cannot be sure, that this is Holz poking fun - usually it's not so hard to tell. Benevolence is the fifth novel from Holz, a native New Yorker who has lived in Canada for 35 years. She is a past master at mining the terrain of coupledom - its sorrows as well as its absurdities, which she delves into with sensitivity and humour.

Her strengths are apparent here in peripheral characters such as Molly, who, though she threatens to degenerate into a stereotypical Jewish mama ("… listen, I understand … a boy gets married, his mother doesn't count any more"), and who dismisses Renata as Ben's "barren, goyische wife," flowers into an individual both courageous and admirable, if not precisely lovable. (Besides which, we may have in Molly the only fictional portrayal of a 73-year-old woman who is, stop the presses, permitted a sexual appetite.)

Less convincing is the portrayal of Renata's client, Stella, and the supposedly healing relationship between them. As the novel progresses and Stella, who soon learns she is pregnant, gains strength emotionally and physically, Renata's emotional rigidity is brought to the fore. In fact, regarding Ben and Renata, rarely have nominal caregivers seemed so obviously the ones in need of care.

But then, I assume this is Holz's point, one she makes movingly in this uneven but sympathetic exploration of just how far we need, and need to be willing, to go to quell our longing - for creativity, for love, for children, for connection.

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"Wanting something doesn't make it happen, does it," Stella comments to Ben, a stranger whose path she happens to cross while travelling. "I think it's a good start," Ben responds.

As true in fiction as in life.

Kathleen Byrne, a Toronto-based writer, is a regular contributor to Globe Books.

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