This outstanding second collection offers a series of short stories united by the common characters that inhabit a bleak Wisconsin landscape. In each of these eight tales, Monroe (The Source of Trouble, 1990) explores the many faces of love in rough and passionate, but also often oddly distant, terms. It's as if the hopelessness of a small town (with a population of 2,493, ten bars on two blocks of Main Street, and a high-school graduating class of 29) seeps into every relationship. Monroe handles unrequited love with just the right blend of sentimentality (to make it convincing) and dry wit (to make it palatable). In ``The World's Great Love Novels,'' a young girl named Louisa recalls a life-altering summer at her family's cabin on Sunfish Lake, where she meets a girl named Zoe (``a year older than me, eighth grade: already a vamp....She'd peaked early'') and falls hard for a guy named Brad; but even though Louisa and Brad never get together, years later, she admits that she still dreams about him. A college-age Louisa then gets her chance to generate longing in someone else when a man tries to win her away from her abusive, dope-dealing boyfriend and fails (``The Plow Got Through, Too Bad''). But sometimes, love proves possible, as when a middle-age Zoe, trapped in an empty marriage, elicits a passionate proposal from a man with whom she's been having what seemed to be a purely physical affair (``Plumb and Solid''). What makes all this romantic talk wash is that it's rarely romantic. The characters may want to believe in true love, but we see them learn to doubt that notion early on (Louisa knows the exact day her parents' marriage ``went terminal''), and the largely female cast carry endlessly fascinating chips on their shoulders (``I understood sex? No. I didn't drive a car either. I had rage. This got me places''). Even when cold, these characters are hopelessly charming.