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FICTION : THE FIERCE DISPUTE by Helen Hooven Santmyer (St. Martin's Press: $16.95; 288 pp.).

November 29, 1987|Judy Bass

First published in 1929, "The Fierce Dispute" was Helen Hooven Santmyer's second novel; her next one, ". . . And Ladies of the Club," achieved best-seller status when it was reissued in 1984. This brief, insubstantial tale probably won't be similarly popular because the hostilities it depicts aren't really "fierce" and riveting, so tedium sets in quickly.

Santmyer, who died in 1986, portrays imperious old Margaret Baird, her daughter Hilary, and Hilary's little girl, Lucy Anne. This oddly reclusive trio hides behind the padlocked gates of Margaret's shabby home in Xenia, Ohio, indifferent to public speculation about their lives. Actually, the family's background is more unhappy than sordid. Years ago, Hilary wed a womanizing musician whom she eventually left. Margaret, furious with Hilary for marrying unwisely, insisted that she, not Hilary, would raise Lucy Anne.

Consequently, the child doesn't attend school, cannot have musical instruction, and knows nothing about her deceased father. Hilary and Margaret constantly argue about the past, but a doctor's marriage proposal to Hilary, and Lucy Anne's unquenchable interest in music, compel them all to warily confront the future. Only Santmyer's ardent devotees could find merit in this novel; its slow pace, blandness, and one-dimensional characterizations will disappoint virtually everyone else.

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