News that U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had written a novel about a female Democratic senator from California sparked a flurry of...

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News that U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., had written a novel about a female Democratic senator from California sparked a flurry of questions in book circles. How does a senator have the time, between campaigns and bills and meetings, to write a novel?

Is “A Time to Run” (Chronicle, 368 pp., $24.95) a roman á clef, maybe even a revenge fantasy? And is it any good?

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California Sen. Barbara Boxer’s appearance tonight at Town Hall in Seattle has been canceled. She is needed back in Washington, D.C.

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We can’t satisfy your curiosity about that first question (though Boxer says it did take her seven years and the assistance of British-born novelist Mary-Rose Hayes to get “A Time to Run” off and running). But Boxer has insisted in print that her heroine, Ellen Fischer, is not her alter ego, and we believe her, because no one as high-minded as Ellen could possibly get elected.

Finally, is the book any good? Yes, in a way; it is likely to fascinate readers with a political bent, because it is chock-full of insider stuff: strategy meetings in the senator’s unofficial private office, dinners and coffee at political hangouts in “the other Washington,” the deer-in-the-headlights feeling of a candidate blinded by camera flashes at the podium with a sea of hands reaching out.

Here, too, is the quid pro quo — the cashing in of favors owed and bestowed — that is the backbone of the American political system.

Most of the book, however, is a flashback from a 2001 political crisis Ellen faces to her youthful days as an idealistic crusader nearly 30 years previously at the University of California, Berkeley.

At Berkeley, Ellen meets two handsome and ambitious fellow students, Josh Fischer and Greg Hunter, and the three become fast friends — and, eventually, a love triangle forms.

Josh aspires to make the world a better place through politics; Greg intends to become a journalist who can out-Watergate the best of them. All Ellen wants to do is save abused and neglected children, and she bravely walks the streets garnering signatures for the Children’s Alliance.

It is in the lengthy flashback sections that this starts to sound like a romance novel, possibly courtesy of Boxer’s co-writer Hayes (whose earlier novel, “Amethyst,” Publisher’s Weekly deemed an “altogether standard potboiler”).

Thus we have Ellen’s first encounter with Josh: “She found herself thinking of an Apache warrior. An image from a long-ago poetry class slid into her mind as if tailor-made for him: bright darkness.” And the jealous Greg, later deciding he could never love the wealthy woman he marries because he only wants Ellen: “He had a bad feeling that he would not throw himself in front of a bullet to save her [the wife]. Though he would, anytime, to save Ellen. Why did she choose Josh and not me?”

Greg quickly becomes the villain of this story, as he sells out in every possible way (marriage, career, money) while nursing his grievances: “Sometimes Greg hated Josh, sanctimonious prig, still sophomorishly saving the world.”

A user of women and an abuser of his power, Greg is the wicked force behind the plot, setting most of the catastrophes and potential disasters in motion. It is he who returns to place 21st-century Ellen in her present dilemma: what to do about some potentially damning papers Greg gives her regarding the past of a Supreme Court nominee, Frida Hernandez.

Hernandez looks like a shoo-in for the nomination, with all the right credentials to appeal to the Republican majority, but Ellen knows she is an arch-conservative who will “turn back the clock” and also oppose Ellen’s own children’s rights bill.

The real problem Ellen faces is that it’s hard for readers to believe in her; she’s so unremittingly good and earnest and bland. Even the great sorrow in her life, that she has “ovarian failure” and can’t bear children, doesn’t humanize her because it seems to be the concept of failure, not those missing babies, that haunts her: “That word, failure — I can’t believe he’d say that to me!”

If this novel has one central flaw, it’s that the characters rarely rise above the level of the banal and the obvious. Ellen might make a great senator, but as a protagonist, she’s not all there.

Melinda Bargreen is the classical music critic for The Seattle Times.