In her novels, O'Brien's mannered, almost curdled, passionate style is usually set off by meticulous honesty. But in these dozen short stories--written over the past 13 years--she rarely has time to get real feelings fully wound up, and the style often oozes into self-parody. The sameness of theme doesn't help, either--mostly about middle-aged, lonely women making fleeting contacts that are never enough. A spinster's Irish life is pure squalor; a visiting writer attempts friendship with a faculty wife, but only so far; an abandoned wife dreams of an enchanted mews apartment complete with lover, only to find it's her unfaithful husband's love nest (""Number Ten""). One story, ""Starting,"" does seem fully warmed, not rushed: a divorcee meets a lovely, companionable, mature man, but can't stand to contemplate all the excitement and suspense of the start of a love affair; she'd rather come in somewhere in the middle, where it's already ""as it was with her children, easy and silent and with an unutterable understanding."" O'Brien, as anyone who knows her work will tell, is all heart--you can just about wring her out--but here that heart doesn't start pumping on such short notice; still, her fans will welcome this gathering of some previously uncollected favorites.