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Gardens by Holly Prado (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; $14.95; 149 pp.)

November 24, 1985|Sharon Dirlam | Dirlam is a Times staff writer.

"I hate to see things die" is the opening phrase of this short first novel by poet Holly Prado. The main character, a woman in her 40s, is talking about a jacaranda blossom, but the comment is a metaphor for the story to follow: three women facing the end of an era in their personal lives.

Kate, in middle age, is an established Los Angeles artist (selling an occasional highly received painting while her husband tends to the basics, such as paying rent and buying food). She seems to be emotionally on hold while her art goes through a red-and-orange phase, with mysterious faces materializing on canvas as she tries to work through to whatever comes next.

Her daughter, Sheila, is at the beginning of a creative adulthood, she hopes, with a new college degree and literary aspirations. She wants to move out of her parents' house in Silver Lake and into a small place of her own. And she wants to figure out which of two men--if either--she loves. Kate is as frightened of the prospect of Sheila's departure as Sheila is determined to go.

Meanwhile, Kate's mother, Audrey, is at the end of a long and successful career. Trim, capable and elegant, she is stepping down as vice president of a sportswear line.

Although most of the philosophizing and ruminating is done by Kate, and her character is the most fully realized, Sheila commands the greater interest. She is the one with energy, imagination, guts. One is told that the two older women have done brave things and shown depth of inner resources, but their behavior and current thoughts as the story unfolds seem mainly self-absorbed.

Most neglected are the men in the story. Their faces are blank; their actions a puzzle. They exist chiefly in relation to the women and through the women's perceptions of them.

Some of the action seems contrived: Kate smoking marijuana before lovemaking, Sheila having her bushy hair chopped off into tight curls, Audrey masturbating one sunny morning just after her retirement. Such activities are everyday material, but not particularly significant, and seem tacked onto the plot like spots of color on one of Kate's experimental paintings.

The novel is spare, covering the spectrum of three lives in just 178 pages, with the current scene in the present tense, memories in past tense and the rest of life in future tense. It's an effective device, with the merest hint that there is a vast amount of material left unexamined.

This is an exploratory story, gently told, with a strong sense of place and a respect for human yearnings. It's told with warmth and simplicity. Much of the development is in dialogue between the characters. This creates a sense of immediacy, but leaves much unsaid, just as many relationships do.

One is left wanting to look around corners and into closets to see what's really going on, and wondering why particular scenes are detailed while so many more are suggested but kept hidden, like the elements in soil that make plants grow, leaving only color and shade to ponder. Perhaps that is the basic metaphor of "Gardens."

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