O'Brien's characters tend to charge after life and experience like huntsmen in full cry, overcoming obstacles--or at least giving them a fair try--and flinching at nothing in their head-long pursuit. The 12 new stories in this collection are no exception: no emotion or experience is secondhand or recollected in tranquility, all is bustle and passionate intensity. Set in Ireland, the stories are about the failed lives of men and women, and the small--even petty--victories that the characters retrieve from their defeats. But many of the pieces are too quickly sketched for such epiphanies to be fully explored. The exception is the title story, in which Miss Lawless, a middle-aged woman at a surprise party for Betty, whose husband has been unfaithful, sees a man who reminds her of her first love. As the party progresses, Mr. Conroy, who has brought Miss Lawless, calculates whether he can get her into bed afterward, and the other guests talk and fight. But when a large surprise gift is wheeled in, the whole room is idled with hope that Betty's errant husband has returned. Like Miss Lawless, they feel a surge of happiness, ""for if the wishes of one were granted, then the wishes of others would be fulfilled in rapid succession."" In other notables: a young widow (""The Widow""), in love again, is destroyed by malicious gossip; and in ""Another Time,"" Nelly, a woman in a midlife crisis of sorts (a failure in love and work) learns that an old rival--who bad married Nelly's first love--has been haunted over the years by her husband's preoccupation with Nelly. O'Brien wonderfully evokes the twists-and-turns feelings. of her characters, but sometimes these feelings lack context. Perhaps too much dash and emotion, then, but always affecting.