Fiction: novel and short stories explore contemporary themes

Doctors & Women, by Susan Cheever. New York: Clarkson N. Potter. 256 pp. $17.95. Inventing the Abbotts, by Sue Miller. New York: Harper & Row. 180 pp. $15.95.

Two new works of fiction have arrived from women making names for themselves in the literary world. But in both cases, readers are likely to be disappointed.

Kate Loomis, the plaintive young protagonist of ``Doctors & Women,'' has potential as a character of the establishment '80s. Comfortably married to a childhood playmate, she lives in a fashionable co-op on Manhattan's Upper East Side and rents a garret room of her own where she does her artsy writing.

But underneath the grown-up bangles and glitz is a petulant little girl who makes no effort to see beyond her own well-powdered nose. As she searches for the cause of her current ennui, she attributes it first to her father's death two years earlier, and then to her mother's recently diagnosed illness. Thus begins a story that takes a long time to arrive at an unconvincing ending. Readers who enjoyed Susan Cheever's previous book - a much acclaimed and captivating memoir of her father, writer John Cheever - aren't likely to feel the same way about this novel. Where ``Home Before Dark'' was remarkable for its vitality, humor, and grace, ``Doctors & Women'' has an air of uncertainty that prevents the reader from becoming involved with its cast of characters - two self-centered women unhappy in their marriages, two mothers suffering from the same illness, and two doctors arriving at similar conclusions about the medical profession by different routes. They start the book complaining about their lot in life, and at the end of it they have merely adjusted to circumstances, rather than taking control and rising above their difficulties. Although Cheever does raise some timely issues about medical ethics, she backs away from drawing any conclusions.

The 10 short stories in ``Inventing the Abbotts'' explore some of the same themes of sexual identity and individual responsibility that author Sue Miller dealt with in last year's novel, ``The Good Mother.'' In both the title piece and the heavily layered ``Leaving Home,'' two mothers look at their grown children's empty lives and realize that they are helpless to do anything more for them. The amorously wayward husband in ``Tyler and Brina'' and the confused divorcee who's found no lasting satisfaction in her numerous love affairs in ``Expensive Gifts'' are struck by the needs of their young sons for love.

While writing from what she describes as a ``moral viewpoint,'' Miller makes casual use of offensive language and explicitly sensual scenes. Her characters appear to be trying to come to terms with themselves and with contemporary society, but their repeated failures make the reader wonder how concerted an effort the author has in mind for them.

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