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Rather less expansively inventive than Gardam's novels, these short stories again celebrate kinks, clove hitches, and remarkable stretches of the ties that bind one person to another. In the title story, a Jane Austen devotee, having inherited never-opened Austen letters quite probably written to a lover (!), burns them unread, thereby robbing the world (and a greedy professor) of a prize, but also paying back ""a little of a great debt"" to Jane herself. In another tale, three tottery ex-raj dames of withered fortune, hooting at tea, are brought up short when it seems that their deceased and lowly nanny (the ""perfect servant"") has left a sizable legacy in return for a child's long-ago kindness. Old obsessions and possessions have a way of mucking up the present: a marriage will forever be shadowed by the appearance of an ex-lover to a young mother at a seaside cottage; and in the rural home of an army wife, a ghost ruins a happy dream of belonging to an ages-old ""neighborly"" community. Firm sets of the heart can be skewed in an instant: a hip, globe-trotting youth switches affection from a summer's barefoot love to his father's elegant digs and daily pleasures; an unwary homosexual, lured into becoming the sole guest of sexually ambivalent newlyweds, finds a shocking attraction which sends him on strange and frantic errands. And both love and fear wear masks: for the wife who ""wants pity more than love,"" a husband is compelled to pretend adultery; a dotty old couple, by showing fear behind their maddening obtuseness, inadvertently give hope to a mourning niece. A few of these vignettes are efficiently breezy and self-contained--a housewife preparing for her son's arrival with a Chinese girlfriend (""If she's the Chairman Mao style we'll not get on"") or the lyrical bath song of a house-breaking tramp--but most of Gardam's eccentric-edged people seem to demand novelistic space and time for rummaging through all their dark and bizarre corners. Not prime Gardam, then, but brightly appealing nonetheless: civilized, slightly offbeat treats for a fairly special readership.

Pub Date: Dec. 4th, 1980
Publisher: Morrow