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IN BRIEF

Fiction

August 11, 1996|CHRIS GOODRICH

THE SHADOW OF DESIRE: by Rebecca Stowe (Pantheon: $22, 228 pp.). Tolstoy was wrong: Unhappy families are often very similar in their unhappiness--in fiction at least. You know the profile--absent father, self-sacrificing mother, one selfish and one screw-up sibling, the family's downward spiral told by a damaged narrator in light of some horrible but enlightening revelation.

Rebecca Stowe, author of "Not the End of the World," isn't staking out any new ground in "The Shadow of Desire," yet she chronicles middle-class dysfunctionality so well that the genre almost seems fresh. Ginger Moore, 38, has returned to her parents' home for Christmas but dreads the holiday because she is sure to be the main target of her self-destructive, alcoholic mother's bile; because Cease, her 41-year-old do-nothing brother, will torture their mother, for his own reasons, with semi-serious threats; because her father will attempt to stay above the destructive fray, making bad jokes and pretending the family is happy.

What makes the novel work are Ginger's sensibility and sensitivity. A professional biographer, Ginger recognizes that she lives through other people because she has trouble living herself. She has specialized in depicting talented but obscure women because "I don't like to think about what stops me from living, so I think about what stops other people instead."

The arc of "The Shadow of Desire" may be predictable but Stowe's portrait is utterly convincing and unfailingly intelligent.

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