IT IS HARD to understand how a writer of Maureen Howard's elegance, sharpness, sensibility and tenderness has escaped widespread public notice for so long. In 1965 she published her second novel, Bridgeport Bus: it is one of the most astutely funny novels of our time and no one I know who has read it has been able to forget it. Critics took note of her introspective talent for writing autobiography in early middle age by giving a prize to The Facts of Life a few years ago, but Not a Word About Nightingales in 1962 and Before My Time in 1975 -- both excellent novels -- slipped through general observation. For all I know, Grace Abounding will not noticeably advance her fame, yet it is another of her meticulously observed and beautifully written short studies of women caught in the world of men, lost to themselves, and finding little meaning in what they do.

It may seem that, if this book has a flaw, it is that both the events and the characters are somewhat underdeveloped. They are spare, sparsely suggested, in the way that Willa Cather admired when she complained in her essay, "The Novel Demeuble," that "the novel, for a long while, has been over-furnished." Maureen Howard writes fiction with Edward Hopper's eye and an ear that might have been tutored by John Cage. A great deal happens in a short space. To my taste this is a virtue because it leaves the reader space to expand, to conjecture, and to create parallel structures from his own experience.

The heroine and point of consciousness, for most of Grace Abounding is Maude Dowd, a lady whose name bears the same dominant vowels as the author's. We see from the outside and from her unsettled and often confused interior her relation to her senile mother, to her gawky adolescent daughter Elizabeth, to her husband who is dead, to her frightened lover who runs a religious gift shop in their town in Connecticut, to the two odd ladies who live across the street -- one of whom is regarded by the town as "our Emily Dickinson" -- and to, eventually, her child-patients in psychotherapy and to her second husband. Time passes, Maude sees her daughter grow up to develop a beautiful voice professionally only to abandon it for a shallow suburban marriage. A small cyst appears on her eyelid which goes by the romantic-sounding name of "chalazion," and suddenly her mortality and pity for her limbo-selves flood in upon her. At the same time her daughter discovers the truth about the two old ladies in the decayed farmhouse in Connecticut, Maude's Jewish husband spies upon his Episcopal-priest son and "finds him out" in a strange way, and Elizabeth begins to sing again. The final "grace note" to the story of Maude and her connections is left for the priest who performs his function for a young couple and then stumbles home drunk to his solitary life.

The paragraph above is purposefully long and unbroken to suggest the crowd of event and character that make the tapestry of Maude Dowd's consciousness. There is the sense of a much larger tapestry than 175 pages can contain; there is the feeling of intimacy with the people, drawn in with swift and telling strokes, which the length of the descriptions cannot explain. Maureen Howard distills what she knows; what is left in the alembic is all the serious reader needs to enter into her world.

The long frieze of women in this novel -- mother and her doomed housekeeper, heroine and her daughter, decaying old sisters -- does not constitute the whole of the story. Howard is a writer in the feminist tradition only because the dominant sensibility is most often that of a woman. But she suffers no myopia when it comes to men: husbands, lover, priest-son are all very real and very central to the whole splendidly arranged and securely conceived structure. Women without men, to turn Hemingway's phrase about, is never her subject but rather women searching for their lost selves in a male world in which most of the men are also adrift.