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BOOK REVIEW : The Evolution of Character and Author : THIS OLD HEART OF MINE by Merrill Joan Gerber ; Longstreet Press $18.95, 294 pages.


I'll confess to a certain prejudice, only because it will enhance my eventual conclusion. I don't read Redbook magazine, its jazzy advertising campaign about modern women who juggle notwithstanding, because I think of it in terms of the old Redbook--all home and hearth, lots of recipes centered on convenience foods and fashion spreads reminiscent of the fabulous '50s.

Unfair of me, I'm sure, but then, that's what prejudice is all about.

So I wasn't too excited about "This Old Heart of Mine," a collection of stories that appeared in Redbook between 1964 and 1991. I know Redbook has a reputation for exceptional short fiction, but still: I didn't expect much from a collection of stories about Janet and Danny, who, as you might expect, go from being young folks in love to grandparents.

The earliest stories are interesting bits of social history, fragments of the pre-Betty Friedan era, when men were graduate students and women were hard-working wives until they got promoted to be penny-pinching, stay-at-home mothers. At the time, they might have made some readers feel better about their own frustrations, since Janet tended to gripe and fret more than her share.

But hindsight is always 20-20, and a reader today will see immediately that Janet is uncomfortable with her plight--and has good reason to be.

In a word, the woman is a crank--resentful, angry, anxious, depressed, upset with her subservient plight and her self-indulgent husband. She's working her derriere off, waking before the heat goes on and barely getting home to cook dinner, and he's enjoying his morning coffee before he heads to the library to do the research she's sure he isn't finishing fast enough.

If this was a nonfiction history, I doubt Janet and Danny would have made it past the first kid; they'd be a divorce statistic by now. The odd advantage to fiction, though, is that Merrill Joan Gerber can make them stay together, can force the long view upon them, even if they blow it short term. So they grow, and the writer grows with them, and by the time the kids are old enough to go to the zoo even the most cynical of readers is hooked.

What Gerber grows into is subtlety--an ability not just to chart Janet's and Danny's ups and downs but to convey the shadings of emotion they experience on the way from one to another.

The story about the zoo trip is particularly surprising: Any mom who's ever wished for 10 seconds to herself will empathize with Janet's frustrating morning, getting the kids ready for a jaunt she doesn't want to take, only to find that her husband has gotten distracted and thrown the whole outing into scheduling jeopardy.

We're right there with her when she explodes, and announces her intention simply to stay home and relax. What's surprising is what happens when she gets her wish. If the outcome seems a little pre-modern (I imagine a larger percentage of moms today, many of whom work besides, might actually take the free time and figure out how to cope with their feeling of abandonment), Gerber does bring the reader up short. For all of a mom's complaining, part of the time-strain problem is that she usually does want to be with the kids. This story looks at just how fierce, and irrational, that yearning can be.

I'm not suggesting that we have early Updike here, those glorious stories that demanded reading and rereading, whose physical descriptions often seemed to reach up off the page and form a third dimension.

There is not the economy of style that makes Joyce Carol Oates' work so stunning. Some of the earliest stories, in particular, cry out for just another rewrite, for a moment's more consideration; Gerber knew well enough what she was up to, even at the beginning, to be self-assured--and the moments when she faltered stand out in relief.

But Gerber's stories have a synergistic advantage; they mean more gathered together than any of them would have alone. The collection is worthwhile because it is so unusual--because it allows the reader to see both how the characters and their creator have grown over time. It's rare that we get to see so lasting, and focused, a relationship.

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