Three novellas by three Brits reminding us that the most ordinary-seeming people may lead lives of private drama. Bovine Brenda, the middle-aged spinster in Wakefield's (Lot's Wife, not reviewed) ``The Other Way,'' leaves her linoleum kitchen for a Tunisian holiday after winning the grand prize in a contest she had entered with the hope of winning the consolation appliance. Dowdy-by-day book editor Mary is a silk-stockinged mistress whose freedom and established habits are disrupted by her magnate lover's marriage proposal in ``Caesar's Wife'' by Gale (Kansas in August, 1988, etc.). Both ladies, for whom routine is a comfortable shoe, react dramatically to their new circumstances. Brenda flees her garish tour group for the quiet companionship of an aging homosexual gentleman and, in an odd maelstrom between otherwise comedic and contemplative pages, has a shocking epiphany. Mary panics and, with the help of her lover's gay, wheelchair-bound son, Josh (who is her close friend), cooks up a wacky scheme so she can have her cake and eat it too. The theme of secrecy applies to gays (featured with varying prominence in each story) as well as to misunderstood women. Homosexuality is most directly dealt with in the title story by King (Punishments, 1990, etc.), in which Brian, a closeted barrister, dies of AIDS, fearing to the end rejection from friends, family, and his beleaguered Japanese lover, Osamu. All three novellas are humorous and moving, but Gale's glows with a subtle polish the others lack. He's overcome the heavy-handed polemicism of his longer fiction and focused on telling the story, a fluid and wry tale. ``People aren't what you think they are,'' remarks Brenda's narrow sister. Nor are books, as Secret Lives proves: At arm's length, it's hodgepodge; up close, intricate patterns emerge.
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