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Stories of romance and realism

A Fanatic Heart, by Edna O'Brien. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 461 pp. $17.95. Edna O'Brien's fifth collection of stories, ``A Fanatic Heart,'' is a retrospective of her short-story writing. It contains 29 stories, of which 20 first appeared in The New Yorker. It includes all nine stories from her most recent collection, ``Returning'' (1981); four previously uncollected, interrelated stories that appeared in The New Yorker from 1979 through 1981; and selections from her first three collections.

For a number of years I have enjoyed reading Edna O'Brien's stories in The New Yorker. The publication of ``A Fanatic Heart'' has provided the opportunity to reread some favorite stories, discover new ones, and consider why it is that I find her stories so appealing.

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The typical Edna O'Brien story is set in her native Ireland, although there are also stories set in London (where she has lived for the past 20 years) and elsewhere. O'Brien pays great attention to the details of everyday life, and her stories paint clear pictures of the world she is depicting, whether it is a farm or village in the west of Ireland or an elegant London house.

Her stories examine the variety of relationships between people -- between friends and lovers, between husband and wife, mother and child, teacher and pupil. Many of O'Brien's stories are love stories. The narrator in most of them is a woman. Yet these stories are not romantic women's stories of the type so often found in Redbook or Good Housekeeping. The emotions depicted in these stories are universal for men and women, and O'Brien brings a cold, clear-eyed realism to her treatment of romantic subjects.

Her stories display a sadness, a melancholy, that is, remarkably, not at all depressing. They express the bittersweetness of memories, of the passing of time, of growing up, of seeing things change, of discovering that things never were quite what you thought them to be. People and events are seen through the gauze of memory, yet they have the immediacy of the here and now.

Like the rose in the title of one story, Edna O'Brien's stories are beautiful and sweet-smelling but have thorns that can prick and wound. There is a fascinating dichotomy in her stories, represented by rural Ireland and urban London, by the past and the present, by love and hate, romance and realism, youth and maturity.

The appeal of Edna O'Brien's stories for me is her refreshing viewpoint. She describes the feminine side of love without resorting to feminist ideology. She accepts the hurt of love without rejecting either the need for it or the source.

Jane Stewart Spitzer reviews popular fiction for the Monitor.

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