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FICTION : INVENTING THE ABBOTTS by Sue Miller (Harper & Row: $15.95; 192 pp.).

May 03, 1987|Gary Dretzka

Early in the title piece of this perceptive collection of stories, Sue Miller neatly conjures up a nostalgic vision of small-town America, then just as quickly breaks the spell: "The Abbotts' house was on the main street in town, down four or five blocks from where the commercial section began, in an area of wide lawns and overarching elms. Now all those trees have been cut down because of Dutch elm disease, and the area has an exposed, befuddled air." She goes on to describe how the branches of two very different Midwestern families intertwine and, like the elms, are damaged by an inability to overcome foreign influences.

The first mild tremors of the sexual and social youthquake that soon would shape the '60s can be felt in this story, which has a Wally-and-the-Beaver-leave-the-nest feel to it. The pieces that follow are set mostly in the '80s, and the paisley dreams of the Love Generation have given way to an array of midlife crises that, if they weren't so artfully dissected, would border on the cliche.

Miller displays great sympathy for contemporary, middle-class adults who can't quite cope with the realities of growing up and must wrestle with baffling relationships, edgy children, sudden gray hairs, dead-end jobs and mortality. Their experiences, thanks to Miller's graceful prose and some cleverly kinky twists, make for provocative reading and provide many unexpected jolts of recognition for readers of a certain age.

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