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Familiar themes, plots in latest collection of Colwin stories

Another Marvelous Thing, by Laurie Colwin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 144 pp. $13.95 If Laurie Colwin were an artist instead of a writer, she would be a maker of those small, delicious drawings dropped into the text of The New Yorker. As it is, her stories often are the text. Her latest book, ``Another Marvelous Thing,'' is a collection of eight ``connected'' stories, five of which were first published in The New Yorker.

In all, Ms. Colwin has written four novels and many short stories, and her phrase ``domestic sensualist'' describes her writing as well as her characters. She is a master of lovely incidentals -- the curve of the belly of a pitcher, the color of a blue Staffordshire plate, the comfort of ``nursery'' food on cold days.

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But any Colwin reader knows that, charming as she may be, she is beginning to tell the same story over and over. In her last book, ``Family Happiness,'' Polly is happily married to a lawyer who neglects her. She falls in love with Lincoln, an artist who likes his solitude. She's miserable with guilt about the affair but can't do without it.

In her latest book, Billy and Francis are happily married to others but find they have fallen in love. They are nice people, but ``It would never work out.'' Billy thinks adultery is a moral issue but they can't seem to break it off.

The plot repetition is compounded by the eight ``connected'' stories that make up ``Another Marvelous Thing.'' Each elaborates the same dramatic situation, but with a different narrator, time, and tone.

When the variations appeared, one by one, in The New Yorker, it seemed Colwin was tinkering in public with a novel in progress. But now that the book is published, well, it isn't a novel at all. She seems to be arranging and rearranging a still life.

Colwin is a good writer and Knopf is a well-respected press. Something seems to have gone wrong here.

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