THE GOOD WOMAN by B. J. Chute (Vanguard: $15.95; 244 pp.). With stunning compassion and perceptiveness, Chute depicts Florence Butler, a middle-age divorcee who dodges her problems by transforming herself into a bag lady. Although she is financially secure, and often chats with her married daughter as well as a garrulous childhood friend named Janet, Florence trudges through each barren day feeling utterly glum. Just when hopelessness overwhelms her, she enviously notices a bag lady near the steps of the New York Public Library. Suddenly, she longs to discard her identity, routines, inhibitions and responsibilities, and vanish into shabby anonymity.
To act out this fantasy, Florence relinquishes every trace of gentility and privilege, then shrouds herself in nondescript clothing and starts roaming from one comfortless public place to another. This primitive, unencumbered existence suits Florence, yet she grows increasingly distraught as long-suppressed memories flood her mind. The manner in which she courageously confronts her painful past and finally returns home is as moving and dramatic as the rest of this eloquent novel. Chute masterfully presents Florence not as an eccentric or capricious individual, but as a deeply agonized one whose brief foray into poverty leads to a healing catharsis.