The Obedient Wife by Julia O'Faolain
(Carroll & Graf: $17.95; 230 pp.)
Three decades ago, in a memorable short story, Sean O'Faolain dealt skillfully with the impingement of celibacy on a growing friendship, or comradeship, between two young monks and two young nuns during a Gaelic-studying summer session in the Irish mountains in the early 1920s. Things have changed a lot since the early 1920s, and the slopes of Beverly Glen, that well-known, well-off L.A. enclave, are a long way from the Irish mountains; but some things don't change all that much between 1925 (or even 1355, approximate date of the "Decameron") and 1985; and so today we have Julia O'Faolain (pronounced "Oh-FAY-l 'n"), Sean's daughter, skillfully dealing with the impingement on celibacy of a growing friendship or companionship between or among a young priest, a married parishioner with five children, and her secular-minded friend Carla, central figure of Julia's new novel. Why Sybil Steele--the Steeles have given up sex because of not wanting more kids after the first five--should imagine that an affair with a virginal male presumably as ignorant of birth-control techniques as she must be herself (though her husband Terry "hates priests" he is always blasting away as anchorman on the local radio station in favor of every reactionary cause imaginable, so presumably both Steeles are equally unchecked-out on things everybody over 30 must know about in the 1980s!)--why Sybil should imagine such an affair could result in anything but five more sequences of "petty meannesses . . . squabbles . . . rivalries, egotism . . . every one grabbing what they can" (the very thing she objects to in her present home life, the thing that has driven her into church work and Terry into nightly radio broadcasting to get out of the house)--why she should imagine this is a real mystery, but logic and practicality aren't Sybil Steele's long suits, and in the novel's opening scene she comes to Carla's house in Beverly Glen apparently to borrow it for an erotic encounter not yet even suspected (far from contemplated!) by priest Leo (named for a famous Pope), who little guesses his immediate future.