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Gloomy slices of suburbia

For 28 years, Ann Beattie has been writing short stories about betrayal, illness, marriage, and death. Though many of the stories are bleak, the best are also poignant and compelling. They underscore how much people depend on relationships, no matter how fragile or fractured some of those relationships might be. Beattie's best work doesn't feel false, and she doesn't try too hard to catch and keep the reader's attention.

The same, unfortunately, can't be said for several of the 11 stories in her latest collection, "Perfect Recall." The familiar themes run through these new stories, but too often Beattie adds an extra ingredient that sends the story over the top. She seems afraid to leave well enough alone.

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In "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim," for example, a man who works as the assistant to a famous chef comes home from a disastrous date to find that his employer, who also is his closest friend, has fallen from a tree and possibly broken his neck. In "Women of This World," a photographer cooks an annual pre-Thanksgiving dinner for her husband's stepfather and his most recent wife, whom he's planning to leave. Halfway through dinner, to diffuse tension at the table, the two women take a walk and witness a car speeding away from a neighbor's house. "I've got a very bad feeling," the photographer says, and sure enough, when the women enter the neighbor's house, they find she is lying unconscious on the floor.

In a few stories, the tragedy is quieter. In "Mermaids," a woman spends Christmas Day alone at a hotel while her husband, who recently cheated on her, fishes on a charter boat. The woman takes a cab to meet the boat and watches as drunken men, her husband and friend among them, disembark with a group of equally drunk "bright-haired women dressed as mermaids."

"Mermaids" is different from the other stories in this collection in that it doesn't feature a heterosexual man working as an assistant to a famous gay man ("The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" and "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea"), someone falling out of a tree ("The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" and "The Infamous Fall of Howell the Clown"), or an animal that's integral to the story (most of the others). It seems odd that Beattie chooses to use some of the same plot devices in so many of these stories.

The best stories in this collection don't follow any such pattern. In a quieter way, they examine what it is that makes a family, and they celebrate the characters' resiliency. These stories feel unforced, with no grand finale, like much of Beattie's earlier work. "See the Pyramids" tells of two teenage girls who met at a "safe house" after running away from home. They work as models and have older boyfriends they don't love. When the four rent a house in Maine, they run into a woman who recognizes one of the girls, Cheri, as the runaway daughter of friends, though the girl tries to deny it.

Later, as the woman, Francine, is driving away, Cheri runs to catch up. "Those people," Cheri says breathlessly. "Those people you thought I knew. Who are they? Did anything happen?" Francine explains that the couple had separated and were worried about their daughter. "Probably that girl should get in touch," Cheri says. "I hope she will," Francine says.

For almost three decades, Beattie has been writing stories that are gloomy, yes, but also insightful and eloquent. There is some evidence of that here, but not as much as fans of Beattie's earlier work will hope for.

Suzanne MacLachlan is a freelance writer in Boston.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society