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The Experiences of a Forgotten Generation

MY contemporaries and I have been dubbed ``Generation X'' - a group of ``twenty somethings'' living in the long shadow of the baby boomers. We missed the social upheaval of the late 1960s and '70s, and seem to be picking up the pieces of the fast-paced '80s.

But we are not the first hard-to-define group of Americans. And we are not the only generation recognized for the fact that we were born just before or just after a defining period in history.

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``Women Like Us,'' the latest novel by Erica Abeel, chronicles the lives of the members of the class of '58 at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. Abeel, herself a Sarah Lawrence alum, calls them the ``straddle generation,'' women who wrapped themselves in dreams of greatness but at the same time believed that ``love with a capital L'' would set the whole world right. While ``brave new women,'' born just 10 years later, marched headlong into feminism's embrace, the class of '58 ``kind of fell between the cracks...,'' one of the fictional graduates says.

``Women Like Us'' spans more than three decades, tracing the experiences of four friends through courtships, fledgling jobs, rocky marriages, career successes, motherhood, and missteps and betrayals around every corner. Abeel paints an often grim portrait of life for these '50s women. The hands they've been dealt seem unfair; at the same time they are products of their own decisions. Yet they are, if nothing else, persistent and courageous.

Delphine is their leader. Flamboyant and smart, she plans for a future that is over the heads of everyone else. ``What Delphine possessed couldn't be acquired: inborn confidence and nerve. She was a queen ... smashing rules, inventing her own, answerable to no one.''

Beautiful, artistic Daisy marvels that when Delphine conjures up images of a brilliant career, she means it. To the other girls, ``careers were window dressing, part of the enterprise of attracting a husband.'' It is Delphine, however, who later passes up an opportunity to become editor-in-chief of a New York publishing house to follow her self-absorbed, hard-drinking architect husband to Texas.

Daisy, the book's central character, lays aside dreams of dance to enter the typing pool at an advertising agency soon after graduation. ``She had come into her true vocation: love.'' But from the start, love is not kind to Daisy, and her plans to become a writer are realized only in fits and starts.

Franca, secretly engaged in college, yearns for a good man and a safe life but struggles to stay afloat through two failed marriages.

Stable, dull Ginny, afraid at every step of falling short, transforms herself into ``Gina,'' a successful television host, fearful only of the weekends when she finds herself alone. When the women return to Sarah Lawrence years later for a reunion, Gina tells her old friends that they have made their own choices: No one ever has stopped them from doing what they wanted.

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In college, Delphine, spokeswoman for her group and for an era, declares, ``Women like us - we're going to play it different.''

Disillusioned but still fighting years later, she admits, ``We're the end of a line, the last fools for love....''

But readers will wonder if they really are, after all. By the end of this gritty but thoroughly readable and engrossing novel, it's hard to dispute that there is a lot about these insightful women that is just like us, just like women of every generation.

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