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Making the Best of Love : BITCHES RIDE ALONE, By Laura Chester (Black Sparrow Press: $35; $12, paper; 180 pp.) : THE UNMADE BED, Edited by Laura Chester (HarperCollins: $22; 285 pp.)

March 08, 1992|Francesca Lia Block | Block is the author of "Weetzie Bat," "Witch Baby" and the forthcoming "Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys" (HarperCollins/Charlotte Zolotow)

The title of Laura Chester's "Bitches Ride Alone" gives a clue to the irreverent tone of this group of short stories. Most of the nameless "bitches" who narrate one or more of these pieces are in their mid-30s and come from privileged backgrounds. Some live in Manhattan, others in small towns or the country. And almost all have found that love leads to anger or despair.

In these tales, mothers are often chilling, boyfriends unfaithful. But even in the most painful situations, the narrators transform their experience through dreams or fantasies.

In one story a woman tells her friend that she is in love with her therapist. The humorous banter between the narrator and her friend is interspersed with the poetic, sometimes erotic dreams that the narrator brings to her therapist, "like offerings." When the narrator reveals her feelings, her friend retorts cynically that everyone falls for his or her therapist: "Sex has always been a commodity . . . but now it is love?" Through the eyes of the more realistic friend, the author looks at the narrator with irony; but at the same time she revels in the beauty of the dream imagery.

"The Woman I'd Like to Eliminate" is also a dialogue between two friends: another nameless narrator and Jelena, the woman who is going to marry the narrator's ex-husband, Tyler. These "small town gals," "raking up the chicken yard" as they speak, are tough and struggling, unlike the characters in most of the other stories. Jelena tells the narrator that Tyler is having an affair, which reminds the narrator of his infidelities when they were married. "I don't believe any man's faithful," she says. She has suffered through a mastectomy and her anger is fierce, exploding at the end of the story in a violent fantasy directed at the "so-called woman" whom Tyler is seeing instead of Jelena. But even in this bitter story of broken bonds and bodies there is wholeness when the narrator states, "Now my left arm can be used like the other one, and I've come to even like the angry feel of my scar, as if I'm half-man and half-woman, completed."

Laura Chester looks unflinchingly at the loss and alienation in the lives of American women but she offers hope in writing and reading: "(T)here's nothing in the world I can do," says one voice without regret at the end of the book, "but to hand you this manuscript and touch you on the mouth, then to blissfully and quietly depart."

If "Bitches Ride Alone" ends with the woman alone and self-sufficient, "The Unmade Bed," edited by Laura Chester, shows the author's interest in union. Chester has collected pieces by men and women (including two stories from "Bitches") that deal with the tension and excitement of newlyweds, the eroticism of married sex, the wounds caused by, or leading to, infidelity and the almost uncanny bonds of long-term relationships that can survive accidents, separation and even death. The editor's choices reflect her appreciation of the sensual and emotional depths reached through married love and her awareness of the struggle to maintain marriages in our fast-paced world. Laura Chester's broad, unsentimental vision encompasses the single woman of "Bitches Ride Alone" and the married couple of the "Unmade Bed," as they suffer and celebrate life.

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