Brief and, on the whole, forgettable meditations on the balance of power in relationships, the importance of self-esteem, the art of letting go, etc.--placed in New York, French, and New England settings--by an essayist and biographer who's been significantly more entertaining in the past (Jazz Cleopatra, 1989; Writing of Women, 1985, etc.). A Wesleyan English professor--whose relationship with N.Y.C. appears centered on the search for a nonabusive hairdresser and whose experience of France includes chance acquaintances with a Galoise-puffing male prostitute and a transvestite from Dijon--Rose's rather winsome thought-processes turn naturally to the motives underlying individuals' behavior and to what intellectual justification might exist for their actions. But these are shallow waters, for the most part: Rose's affection for vintage clothes; her suspicion that women may occasionally fantasize that their husbands are disabled and need their constant care; her grumpy bewilderment over why some people (usually men) feel a need to play their stereos too loudly--all seem more like what one might expect from a stranger at a party than from this usually invigorating author. Only when the scene shifts to her native ground (Middletown, Conn.) do the themes get interesting and I he comments substantive. In ""On Making Sense,"" Rose expresses real dismay and fear when a previously promising student turns paranoid and begins systematically attacking Rose's home. ""The Tragic Flaw"" quite effectively decries the modern assumption that we get the bad luck we deserve. But a thought piece on a jacks tournament on Martha's Vineyard? A powerful engine coasting in neutral.