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Love Life by James D. Houston (Knopf: $15.95; 220 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Taffy Cannon | Cannon is the author of "Convictions: A Novel of the Sixties" (Morrow). and

Battalions of embittered women have stalked out on unfaithful husbands in American fiction over the last 15 years, craving vengeance on That Miserable Louse.

Holly Doyle, the engaging narrator of James D. Houston's novel "Love Life," is refreshingly different and not just because she doesn't immediately dash to her therapist.

She feels furious and betrayed, of course, with ample reason. On her 32nd birthday, she discovers that her husband is at a seriocomic women's conference with his 20-year-old girlfriend.

Grover and Holly have been together for 10 years, and by certain standards they have it all. They're Berkeley-educated societal-semi-dropouts, living on isolated redwood hill country in Northern California on the proceeds from Grover's solar paneling business. They have two healthy, well-adjusted children and a solid, enduring relationship. They're sometime country-and-Western musicians, though neither is committed fully to a musical career because "it was better, we agreed, to maintain the amateur status and spend your days and years on something wiser, more substantial, less precarious."

Suddenly Holly finds out that "No matter how hard you try, sooner or later you end up somewhere inside a country-and-Western song." In a wonderful sequence at a C&W bar called The Last Roundup, she sings her original composition "Love Life" about a philandering man, gets blasted on Wild Turkey, makes a half-hearted pass at a steel guitar player and ends up socking Grover in the jaw when he appears to defend her honor.

Holly's first impulse is to run. She flies to New York for the obligatory marital-breakup binge, but quickly decides that her future as well as her past and present only can be properly confronted at home.

Her return coincides with a ferocious Pacific winter rainstorm that cuts off power and communication and provides an external struggle against the floods and mud slides that threaten her home. In claustrophobic pioneer-style confinement with their children and Grover's stranded mother, Holly and Grover cautiously begin to reassess their lives and commitment.

Houston's characters are carefully drawn, intelligent, funny and beguiling. "Love Life" is a charming novel, an insightful and marvelously fresh examination of a good marriage in sudden disarray.

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