Inspired by Matisse paintings, these three splendid stories (two have appeared in the New Yorker) pay homage to the artist as they offer equally memorable verbal portraits of apparently ordinary lives driven by pain and disquiet. Just as Byatt (Angels and Insects, 1993, etc.) prefaces each story with an appropriate illustration, each also begins on a deceptively simple, even homely note: a middle-aged woman having her hair cut; a mother trying to work at home while she waits for the doctor to check her son's chicken pox; and a woman meeting a colleague for lunch at the Chinese restaurant she regularly patronizes. But it is soon clear that darker forces are at work here. In ``Medusa's Ankles,'' the woman about to have her hair cut recalls how she had first visited the salon because it had a copy of Matisse's Rosy Nude in the window. The decor has recently changed, the Nude is gone, and the narrator wants an especially flattering haircut for an upcoming television appearance. But the stylist is distracted: He must choose between his girlfriend and his wife, who, he says, has ``let her ankles get fat.'' The comment, which evokes painful memories of the woman's lost youth and beauty, leads her to an uncharacteristic but cathartic outburst. In ``Art Work,'' suggested by Le Silence habitÇ des maisons, Debbie, a harassed working mother, relies heavily on her eccentric housekeeper, Mrs. Brown. Meanwhile, her self-absorbed husband, a failed artist who works at home, can't abide Mrs. Brown, but the housekeeper reveals a surprising talent. Finally, in ``The Chinese Lobster,'' a troubled art student's charge of sexual assault leads two lonely academics to critique Matisse's attitudes toward women and art as they lunch, revealing in the process the frightening emptiness of their own lives, symbolized by the haunting image ``of a white room with no doors or windows.'' Like all good art, these paintings of the human heart linger in the mind's eye. Byatt at her accessible--if rather brief--best.