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Souls Whose Inner Lights Keep Shining : THE COURTS OF LOVE By Ellen Gilchrist Little; Brown; $23.95, 304 pages


A 7-year-old girl is invited to a wedding in Northern California. She has been abused and abandoned and left in an orphanage; now, besides her frilly bridesmaid's dress, the string quartet and the petit fours she eats in a three-story house by the sea, she is amazed by her adoptive family and their friends.

"They kept on acting just like they had the day she met them. As if life was funny, an adventure, something amazing to be watched and commented on. As if some light was in them that did not go out."

We feel much like the little girl, Gabriela, still clinging to the old brown cape she got from the Salvation Army, as we read these 18 stories by Ellen Gilchrist--the first nine of which, under the collective title "Nora Jane and Company," are almost but not quite a novel.

Nora Jane Whittingham, one of Gilchrist's recurring characters, is a beauty who survived an impoverished childhood with an alcoholic mother in New Orleans. Now she is married to wealthy Freddy Harwood, who owns a bookstore in Berkeley. They have twin 10-year-old daughters, Lydia and Tammili (one of whom was probably fathered by Nora Jane's ex-boyfriend, Sandy Wade), and a best friend, Nieman Gluuk, the "bitter and hilarious" movie critic at a San Francisco newspaper.

These are good people, Gilchrist makes unfashionably clear. They are kind and civilized; they do their best to stifle their prejudices and love one another. They have their faults and peculiarities, of course, and so much money that they can sidestep some crises--when Sandy shows up in the neighborhood and Nora Jane and Freddy fear that their daughters' lives will be complicated, they simply buy that house by the sea and move away--but we are meant to see a light shining in them, as Gabriela does.

Gilchrist, whose 12 previous books include "Rhoda: A Life in Stories," doesn't ignore the dark side of life here. The couple who adopt Gabriela lost their own daughter in the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. A fundamentalist Muslim group bombs Freddy's bookstore and assassinates a feminist writer. Freddy breaks his leg while on a camping trip with his daughters and nearly dies.

But Gilchrist keeps the darkness at bay, using a prose style and storytelling methods that at first seem naive but in fact are quite sophisticated.

Her flat, declarative sentences move us on swiftly, without hesitation or nervousness, much as John Cheever's more lyrical style skated us over the thin ice of his New York suburbanites' lives. Yet the very arbitrariness that keeps these stories from quite being a novel is Gilchrist's way of reminding us that she could have taken a less reassuring course if she chose.

A novel is a river, gathering its tributary subplots into a common stream. What we have here is a delta, constantly splitting off into side channels down which Gilchrist pilots us seemingly at whim, using devices such as that old brown cape.

The cape is worn by Leonardo da Vinci during a mystical visit to Nieman, who is about to abandon the arts for science. The Harwood girls find it in their summer cabin in Willits. On the camping trip that nearly kills Freddy, it keeps them dry in a storm. Picked up by the forest rangers who rescue them and donated to the Salvation Army, the cape turns up at Gabriela's orphanage. Her adoptive mother happens to be a cousin of the UC Berkeley scientist who is marrying Nieman, so . . . .

The other nine stories in "The Courts of Love" are more varied and a little less playful, but most of them still testify to love's sometimes uncanny resilience. A man dying of AIDS adopts a dog shot by another man whose abused wife has left him. A woman escapes the trap of erotic nostalgia set by former classmates turned middle-aged swingers. A hungry bear threatens a child in an Arkansas backyard--and, in the feel-good spirit of this collection, neither is killed. A woman who still loves the high school sweetheart she "should have married" 40 years ago doesn't regret that another woman got him: "Rivers run in one direction. Never look back except to praise."

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