Before she imagined the 17th century of Vermeer in her elegant 2000 best-seller, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Chevalier experimented more ambitiously, if less gracefully, with historical fantasy. Her first novel, previously published in Britain in 1997, interlaces past and present in ways akin to A.S. Byatt's Possession: A modern young American woman, transplanted with her architect husband to a pretty, small town near Toulouse, discovers an amazing connection (of fate, psyche, and miraculous change of hair color) to a 16th-century ancestor. Between stretches of teacherly historical detail, Chevalier takes broad shots at contemporary clashes of culture and character. A Frenchman says, ''You're not fat. Why aren't you like every other American?'' The American replies, ''Are you proud of what happened in Algeria?'' A comedian on late-night TV would be less glib.