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Two novels that explore the stages and ages of women's lives

The Magician's Girl, by Doris Grumbach. New York: Macmillan. 200 pp. $16.95 Compressed - magically? - within the limits of Doris Grumbach's short novel are the lives of three women who grow up in the 1920s, meet at Barnard College in the late 1930s, and - still keeping in touch - go their separate ways.

Trim, blond Minna Grant is brought up within the apparent security of an Upper West Side Manhattan neighborhood, but also within the very real web of fears transmitted by her over-anxious mother. Downtown, in Greenwich Village, independent Liz Becker becomes entranced with the odd glimpses of other people's lives that catch her eye as she rides the city's El. And upstate, in a small village, Maud Mary Noon, ungainly, fat, myopic, begins crafting a world of sounds, images, and words from the meager materials at hand.

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By the novel's end, it is 1978. Two of the women are dead: one by suicide years earlier, the other in a recent accident. What sticks in the mind is a series of pictures, each so freshly and strikingly rendered as to defuse any questions about whether or not these tableaux may be contrived, clich'ed, improbable, or all too typical: There is little Maud, feeling safe just knowing her older brother is in the next room, even though he's closed the door for privacy. And Maud's mother, haunting the Miss America pageants, reporting back on ``perfect beauty'' to her conspicuously plain daughter. And Maud, writing poems, oblivious of her surroundings. There's Liz, obsessed with recording through the camera's ``objective'' eye the predicaments of people whose freakish exteriors give them no place to hide. And a younger Liz, visiting with her beloved grandmother on a strip of benches between the uptown and downtown traffic on Broadway. And Minna, herself a grandmother, beginning a new life in Iowa City, embarking on an improbable, sexually explicit, yet lyrically portrayed, love affair with a man young enough to be her grandson.

Just as Liz's Arbus-style photographs capture cross sections of lives in a temporal instant that fixes a spatial impression, so Grumbach's luminously transparent narrative seems to ``fix'' the duration of a lifetime - three lifetimes - within its synoptic overview. What is most poignant about this novel is that its special aura of serenity tinged with sadness comes not from the pains and losses the characters endure, although there are many of these, but from the conviction it conveys that life, for all its sorrows, is so rich with possibilities as to make any one life - however long - much too short.

Grumbach, who is also a book reviewer known to listeners of National Public Radio, has written six previous novels. But none, I think, as compelling as this. Breaking the Rules, by Caroline Lassalle. New York: Viking. 280 pp. $16.95.

If ``The Magician's Girl'' is a clear distillation of experience, ``Breaking the Rules'' is a rich, strong-tasting potpourri. Beginning in 1977 on the island of Cyprus, a woman called Celia sets to work on a writing project to recall the lives of five women, all of them - as she keeps repeating to herself - dead.

First, we meet Charlotte, enjoying the relative freedom of Oxford in the early 1950s after her strict Roman Catholic upbringing. This section is one of the best evocations of a woman student's life at Oxford that I've read in a long while.

Next, we watch Eleanor, a bored young wife and mother preparing to engage in the extramarital love affair practically ``obligatory'' in late 1950s fiction. Her decision is clearly presented as the clich'e she - and we - know it to be, which makes its tragic outcome all the more shocking.

Laura, the ``career girl'' of the early 1960s, blithely takes a job in a Johannesburg ad agency, only to be brought face to face with her own hypocrisy in politics and in love; while Ida, working in a Cape Town bookstore in the radical late 1960s, has her political consciousness ``raised'' by her liberal, anti-apartheid lover, but passes out of his orbit into a conspiratorial circle of communists. Yet, even in jail, she does not feel the commitment she seeks. And last, there is Andrea, a woman of the 1970s, self-confessedly lukewarm, always making the wrong choice and always lacking a sense of conviction.

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Without giving away the ending - the tie that binds the lives of these five - it can fairly be said that the whole is even greater than the sum of its very substantial parts, each an impressive chunk of life in and of itself. Caroline Lassalle works within the confines of a formulaic structure without becoming formulaic in her attitude toward her subject or her treatment of it. By juxtaposing the five women's stories, Celia (the author's alter ego) illustrates the possibility of transcending the limitations of each of their mind-sets. Thus, Celia's freedom, unlike theirs, is achieved, not simply by ``breaking the rules,'' but by attaining a more comprehensive vision.

London-born, Oxford-educated, Lassalle lived for some years in South Africa, where she became involved in - and imprisoned for - anti-apartheid activities. She became founding editor of the British imprint Picador, wrote three thrillers under a pseudonym, and finally wrote this, her first ``serious'' novel, under her own name. Fittingly, it is a book about the possibility of growth and renewal through self-understanding. It is also an ambitious, well-written, highly engrossing novel, a testament to the variety - and disjunctiveness - of human (specifically, women's) experience. Like ``The Magician's Girl,'' it enlarges our notion of what it means to be middle-aged.

As Grumbach's 60-year-old Minna feels herself going backward through time, from age to youth, so, too, is Celia granted a revivifying, if more tentative, revelation: ``Many people would feel that her age was against her. It was strange that - 50 later this year - she had the sense that she had only come half way. Half way where? To a hundred? No, that was not at all what she meant. Yet the phrase `half way' constantly recurred.''

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