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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

THE WOMAN WHO WALKED INTO DOORS By Roddy Doyle; Viking: 208 pp., $22.95

December 29, 1996|FRANCINE PROSE

Reading "The Woman Who Walked Into Doors," one almost can't helpmaking chilling comparisons between its tough, buoyant narrator and James Joyce's Molly Bloom. In his new novel, Roddy Doyle (author of "The Commitments" and "Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha," winner of Britain's Booker Prize) has given us another powerfully memorable Irish woman soliloquizer.

Like the soaring voice that keeps echoing long after the last lines of "Ulysses," Doyle's Paula Spencer is at once ordinary and mythical, lyrical and gritty, down-to-earth and so much larger-than-life that her personality keeps spilling over the boundary between the spiritual and the carnal. But the differences between these two female characters are profoundly disturbing, and readers may find themselves contemplating the drastic changes that have taken place in women's lives or perhaps just in the quantities of hard truth that writers feel allowed--or compelled--to tell about the harrowing struggles for survival that so often pass for domestic routine.

Unlike Molly, who ends her reverie with that oceanic yes, Paula recounts a disturbing, painful and frequently hilarious personal history that is, at its most joyous, more appropriately an occasion for a highly qualified maybe. While Molly moves toward an affirmative celebration of the life-force and of sex, Paula has learned that romance can be the start of catastrophic problems.

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