Three Novellas

By Ellen Gilchrist

Little Brown. 391 pp. $19.45

IN I Cannot Get You Close Enough Ellen Gilchrist -- winner of the 1984 National Book Award for her collection of stories Victory Over Japan -- delivers three poignant, comic and pitch-perfect novellas that revisit the Hand family of Charlotte, N.C.

Not since J.D. Salinger's Glass family has a writer lavished so much loving attention on the eccentricities and activities of an extended clan. Like the Glass family, the Hands are by turns intelligent, passionate and a bit precious, haunted by the spectre of a romantic perfection that is always just out of reach. Most significant, both families suffer the suicide of their oldest sibling: Anna Hand, the writer in The Anna Papers, walks off into the water after she is diagnosed with incurable cancer. Her death, like that of Seymour Glass, does not end her potent influence on those who survive.

"Winter," the opening novella, is drawn from Anna's posthumous manscripts. In swift, urgent entries, Anna chronicles her six-year fight to keep Jessie Hand, her youngest "and beautiful and perfect" niece, the daughter of her darling brother Daniel Hand, out of the reach of Sheila MacNiece, Daniel's estranged second wife who abandoned the child. Anna's efforts to prevent Sheila from winning custody of Jessie lead her as far as Istanbul, where she discovers a terrible secret. Yet all the while, even as we are drawn to Anna's protectiveness, we question Anna's motives. The only person who truly seems able to stand up to Anna is Sheila's father, who asks Anna pointblank what she's up to, why her brother can't defend himself.

His question is not lost on Anna, who recognizes that the answer points to a problem endemic to her own character. "I believe life is supposed to be tragic," writes Anna. "But things which are bearable to my life are unbearable in the lives of my family. I cannot bear to watch them suffer."

Such a mix of propriety and moxie also play a part in "DeHavilland Hand." As the aunt of 16-year-old Olivia de Havilland Hand -- whose Cherokee mother, Summer Deer, died in childbirth after a brief and quickly annulled first marriage to Daniel -- Anna pressures Daniel to go to Oklahoma where the girl lives with her aunt and to bring her home to the Hands' enclave in North Carolina. Once again, Anna's interference sparks changes in the lives of both Jessie and Daniel.

"A Summer in Maine," the final entry in the trilogy of novellas, is a tour de force that clocks the romantic adventures of an eccentric group of familiar Gilchrist characters who have left Dixie for a vacation up North. In Maine, Anna's two young nieces begin a cult of Anna, complete with jasmine incense and reverent readings of her old letters. Meanwhile, the other guests keep themselves busy with a botched love affair, a missing child, a sudden pregnancy and a hurried -- and unpredictable -- wedding.

From a distance, nothing about these characters might attract attention save for the passion with which they act; the burdens and pleasures of family life, Gilchrist implies, can bring the best (and worst) of character to light. Anna's attempts to "rescue" the younger members of the clan, particularly beguiling Jessie and strongwilled Olivia, are linked to historic as well as personal motives. But Gilchrist realizes that Anna's attempts to right family wrongs are shrouded in irony: There is always the chance that fate holds the stronger hand. While Anna succeeds in keeping Jessie from the mother who abandoned her, by the end of "A Summer in Maine," Jessie herself is preparing to jump ship once her own child is born.

But most of all, the novellas concern themselves with the bonds and boundaries of love. "I cannot get you close enough," Anna Hand writes, ". . . never can and never will. We cannot get from anyone the things we need to fill the endless terrible need, not to be dissolved, not to sink back into sand, heat, broom, air, thinnest air. And so we revolve around each other and our dreams collide. It is embarrassing that it should be so hard. Look out the window in any weather. We are part of all that glamour, drama, change, and should not be ashamed."

These are not easy tales, but stories rich with acrimony, wisdom, courage and, finally, joy.

Ilene Raymond teaches at Temple University. Her stories have appeared in the "O. Henry Prize Stories" and "Editor's Choice, Vol. II."