Sunday, August 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Wives & Lovers": Highs and lows of living, loving

Special to The Seattle Times

"Wives & Lovers"

by Richard Bausch
HarperPerennial, 223 pp., $12.95
After the publication of his excellent short-story collection last year, Richard Bausch returns now with "Wives & Lovers," a trio of novellas that exhibit the same fascination with the juxtaposition between external relations and interior lives.

Each of these tales was written in a different decade of Bausch's career, and all three investigate human ambiguity with compassion, even affection. Readers might wish that the novellas had been presented chronologically, from oldest to most recent, because Bausch's always deft touch seems to have become even more fine-tuned over the course of time.

Instead, the novellas are arranged in precisely the opposite order, with the newest, "Requisite Kindness," presented first.

This is a quiet story, but the lack of theatrics does not diminish its emotional wallop. After a lifetime of womanizing catches up with him, Henry, a man on the cusp of 60, has nowhere to turn but to the original females in his life. His 94-year-old mother and older sister Natalie still live in the house where he grew up, and once he moves in with them, his sister goes on an overdue vacation.

Shortly after Natalie leaves, however, their mother suffers a fall, and for the first time in his life Henry is thrust into the position of really taking care of someone besides himself. The hard lesson of steadfastness comes at last, but in many ways it comes too late.

As for the other two novellas: "Rare and Endangered Species" is an intricate examination of the impact a matriarch's suicide has on her family, friends and community. Bausch is superb in conveying the mindsets of a variety of characters. And "Spirits" is an unnerving and occasionally heavy-handed dissection of the corrosive power plays waged between men and women, husbands and wives.

Taken together, these three novellas suggest the inevitable vulnerability of people who hazard love.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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