In a new collection, Lessing (The Fifth Child, 1988, etc.) again demonstrates the formidable intelligence and lucid vision that make her writing so distinctive. Set mostly in present-day London, the sketches reflect a smaller, more domestic world where pleasures are as simple as watching dogs run in the park ("Pleasures of the Park"), and where characters remember when they were young and the city itself was "pinko-grey English" and not the great polyglot city it now is ("In Defence of the Underground"). But the sketches, interesting and perceptive as they are, are secondary to the short stories, which are mainly about the terrible self-absorption that can, if left unchecked, afflict even the most decent men and women. Four are especially fine: "Debbie and Julie," almost clinical in the telling but devastating in effect, is the story of pregnant teenager Julie, who runs away, bears her child alone, and then comes back to her emotionally cold home, having left the baby in a telephone booth because she "understood that Rosie, her daughter, could not come here, because she, Julie, could not stand it." In "Among the Roses," a mother and a congenitally quarrelsome daughter accidentally meet and warily become reconciled as both are admiring a display of roses. Sarah, the abandoned wife of James, with a terrifying insight, suddenly understands ("In the Pit") why Rose, who supplanted her, behaves so deviously and melodramatically; and in the title story, two couples--both previously married--realize that relationships between the sexes are more complex than they imagined, and learn that there is indeed a place for friendship. No warm and fuzzy feelings here, only bracing truths--but then that's what Lessing has always done best.