LOCAL GIRLS

By Alice Hoffman

Putnam. 208 pp. $22.95

Reviewed by Joan Smith

Alice Hoffman's new book of linked short stories, Local Girls, has all the virtues of her 12 popular novels. It is easy to read -- the prose is fluid and even musical at times -- and there is plenty of plot to sustain the casual reader's interest. Unfortunately, it also shares the novels' weaknesses.

Gretel Samuelson is Hoffman's young protagonist, and these stories of her upstate New York adolescence are a nearly unbearable litany of loss. Her father leaves her mother and marries a woman determined to run his children out of their lives. Her mother, emotionally and financially devastated by the divorce, develops terminal cancer. Her brother, a science whiz who should have gone to Harvard, instead goes to work at the local supermarket and becomes a heroin addict. Her best friend gets pregnant and drops out of high school to get married and live in her parents' basement. Gretel herself falls in love with a drug dealer, gets pregnant, miscarries, and leaves him when she becomes fully aware of his nefarious activities.

A reader might wonder how Gretel will fare in the face of all this misery. But if you've read Hoffman before, you know that her trademarks are a tepid magical realism and the upbeat ending. You know that, like most of Hoffman's protagonists, Gretel will pick up forbearance and wisdom just in time for the book's denouement. And her inspiration will be some bit of magic.

In this case, a shopping center mystic weaves a potent fertility spell for her mother's best friend, Margot, in return for a diamond ring. And the symbol of Gretel's transformation -- the black wool dress she wore to her mother's funeral shrinks (during a sudden swim to escape the sounds of Margot conceiving a son) and is replaced by a pink bikini -- is very much like the transformation itself: instant and unconvincing.

But Hoffman is popular, and maybe her popularity is the result of this application of the fairytale form to suburban domesticity. In Practical Magic, two old aunts exorcise a dead but evil ex-husband who, even buried in the backyard, is ruining both the garden and their nieces' lives. In Local Girls, Margot's faith and the mystic's packet of herbs lead to an unprecedented night of lovemaking, making all of the local cats howl and infecting even shell-shocked Gretel with optimism. Like Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, Hoffman's books are whimsical treatments of the potency of love. It gets into the soup and makes the guests feel young and sappy; it gets into the night air and makes dreamers smile.

Still, it is difficult to read her if you've read Calvino and Marquez and Bulgakov, all writers who have used the improbable to entertain, to satirize, to bring the genuine strangeness of existence to life. Hoffman's are fairytales without the darkness, her witches are the stuff of a Disney cartoon, true love is a magic dust in the air that punishes the meanies, rewards the sympathetic and makes everybody do the right thing. And though the terrible things that happen to Gretel drive the plots of the linked stories of Local Girls, they have (in Hoffman's hands) less depth than most newspaper accounts.

Read "The Boy Who Wrestled With Angels" -- about Gretel's brother's decline as a junkie -- and count the cliches. "Later, those who loved him looked back on that day and realized Jason's downward spiral had been happening for some time. They simply hadn't noticed what was right there in front of them, the way some people manage to overlook the sand shifting beneath their feet until an earthquake actually strikes and reveals just how unreliable the whole world can be."

It is painful, after reading Susan Minot's last novel, Evening, and its complex rendering of a dying woman's last thoughts (and in the process, her singular experience), to read Hoffman's fluffy attempt to enter the mind of Gretel's dying mother. "She could hear the ticking of the clock in her hospital room and the beat of her own heart, slow as deep water. No one who had come this far needed to hesitate or look backward, and because she had always known this to be true, she stepped through the gate."

Hoffman's writing in Local Girls, as in all of her fiction, is pretty but slippery. There is no experience here, nothing difficult, nothing alive, just the sentimental and predictable wisdom of popular psychology.

Joan Smith is a former book editor of the San Francisco Examiner.