A Life in Stories

By Ellen Gilchrist

Back Bay. 420 pp. Paperback, $14.95

With Nora Jane, Ellen Gilchrist has created the perfect female fantasy figure. Except for the last one, the stories in this collection have appeared in different literary venues over the years. In each, Nora Jane is presented as what women ought to be, and could be, if they put their minds to it. If she were a sampler, she would appear in cross-stitch.

She is meant to be virtue personified. Nora Jane was raised in poverty in the deep South, ignored by her drunken mother, doted on by her wonderful grandmother. Although Nora Jane was forced to sell vegetables to help eke out their precarious living, she has been taught all the niceties of southern womanhood. She has also been fed liberal doses of courage and pluck. She has an extraordinary singing voice as well, and may be the most beautiful woman in the continental United States.

She's adventurous, and because every girl wants to love a bad boy at least once, Gilchrist gives Nora Jane a feckless first boyfriend who's movie-star handsome. Indeed, Sandy is so handsome he runs off to become a movie star. Who can blame him? And, heck, he's just one boyfriend. What every girl really needs is a husband who's limitlessly wealthy, who loves her more than life itself, who doesn't care all that much whether he's the father of her kids and whose chief delight in life is buying her and her children presents. Freddy Haywood, a bazillionaire who whiles away his time running a glorious bookstore in San Francisco, is perfect husband material. Nora Jane won't know for a long time whether her firstborn comes from Sandy or Freddy, but Freddy doesn't mind, so who cares? Nora Jane has a way of rendering such tiresome questions moot, by virtue of her own overall honesty, beauty and deep sense of the right thing to do.

This is kindly hokum, of course. It goes back at least to Coventry Patmore's long, dippy poem, "The Angel in the House," in which Woman, simply by being Woman, is supposed to become a transcendent civilizing influence upon all who surround her. She deserves reverence, veneration and the deepest respect. Her home is an extension of all this; she provides emotional nurture and shelter for her husband, her children, her friends. She doesn't have to do much; in fact, the less she does the better. All she has to do is be, and those around her will be dazed with admiration.

"I like being a housewife and a mother," Nora Jane says, 10 years or so into her marriage. She's feeling put upon because she's been asked to sing at Lincoln Center: "She didn't want fame, she didn't want applause, she didn't want half the money Freddy gave her and put in her name and put in bonds and stocks and accounts for her. All she wanted was for the days to pass in peace and the people she loved to be safe." She does sing, though. (It's for charity.) "I will sing my heart out for that audience, Nora Jane decided. I will walk out on the stage in my blue velvet dress and for a moment beauty will win and I will be its helper." (This in a world suddenly infested with Arab terrorists who make remarks such as, "We hack away at the legs while the true infidel sits in splendor in London being idolized by dogs.")

Behind the hokum is a very powerful and enticing message: Be content with what you have. Don't strive. Don't work up a sweat about things. Easy to do, of course, if you have all the beauty, money and love in the world, but Gilchrist clearly wishes her readers to extrapolate from this and apply Nora Jane's principles to their own worlds: "We don't have to be unhappy if we don't want to," Nora Jane says.

How do Nora Jane and Freddy spend their time? They ingest plenty of fresh, good meals. (They eat at Chez Panisse, mostly, but we can all buy good vegetables at any farmers market.) They plan weddings for their friends, each more beautiful than the last. They behave heroically: When earthquakes afflict San Francisco, they're totally up to the challenge. When Freddy falls and hurts himself in the wild, his children rely on friendly supernatural intervention -- it's there if you look for it, the author implies. They make music. They admire the ocean. Freddy builds a dream house in the mountains with his best friend. They hang out in bakeries and coffeehouses, enjoying life. They're Catholic, but when push comes to shove they practice meditation and consult with Buddhist monks. They make breakfast for each other and revel in good books. They buy each other gifts. They recall poems they memorized in their youths.

Even when demons come, Gilchrist insists, we can hold them at bay with moral backbone and courage. The demon in this case is cancer.

Freddy, that paragon of a man, comes down with leukemia and must endure a bone marrow transplant. Again, their good characters and good practices stand them in good stead. Nora Jane dresses in silk and pearls: "I have to get dressed as though every day were the main one we'll ever have. I will not start looking like someone who needs sympathy. Every thought counts," she thinks. "So does every minute." Prayers from all over are asked for Freddy, and freely given. Nora Jane throws another wedding for people who need it. Defeating death, bad manners and unhappiness by pure effort of will -- that's what Nora Jane and her creator Gilchrist are up to. If it takes some hokum to pull it off, then so be it.

But all this comes at a price. It's worth noting that the first story here is the best; the last, by far, the worst. Gilchrist is a serious and extremely graceful novelist (she won a National Book Award in 1984 for "Victory Over Japan"). But her optimistic ideology gets in the way of her artistic sensibility. It isn't strictly true that "We don't have to be unhappy if we don't want to." Death, sorrow, grief, disappointments all have a way of piling in on us. What's plucky in our youth can begin to look sappy in our later years. Nora Jane evolves from engaging heroine to a badly drawn poster because insisting that everything is hunky-dory doesn't make it true, or, I'm sorry to say, believable.