An aging spinster biology teacher and her 20-something niece spend a summer getting to know one another in this careful and plodding debut novel. Mary Alice McDonnell fits every stock description of the lonely, middle-aged schoolmarm: dowdy and prickly, devoted to her mundane, hermit-like routine. It works for her until her niece, a perky graduate student named Claire, inherits a house from Mary Alice's recently deceased mother. Mary Alice and her mother had been estranged for 40 years following a mysterious event, dangled through alternating flashback chapters; needless to say, Claire's sudden appearance in the small Virginia town brings back unwanted memories. In an extraordinary coincidence, Claire also reintroduces a piece of her aunt's history: the e-mail address of Michael Harrison, Mary Alice's erstwhile beau, now a famous New York poet. When everything blows out into the open at last, readers may be too wary to notice; too rich with contrivances and expository dialogue, the book falls short of its potential. (Sept.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.