THERE'S something about Isabel Huggan's writing that makes it stand out in a crowd - in this case, the crowded field of reasonably good novels and stories that come across a reviewer's desk every week.
Huggan's prose, though polished, does not call attention to itself, and her themes, while interesting, are hardly unusual. Yet reading her work is an extraordinarily satisfying experience.
This Canadian-born writer's first book, "The Elizabeth Stories" (1987), wisely and delicately explored the evolving sensibility of a little girl. The dozen stories in her new collection, "You Never Know," focus mainly on adults, portrayed with just as much insight, empathy, and humor.
The book begins, however, with the story of a little girl from London, Ontario, who has a crush on the unlikely figure of England's George VI:
"In King George," as the girl explains, "I recognized a soul very like my own - someone who had, inadvertently, without having any say about it, landed in the wrong life. In him I recognized such a gentle and bewildered dignity my heart was quite pierced through with arrows of devotion." Now grown up, the woman looks back on the little girl she was with a tenderness tempered by gentle irony.
In other stories, Huggan writes poignantly of people who want to love and help, but sometimes find their best efforts thwarted. In "Fine Tuning," Julia, an overburdened wife and mother living in France, tries to explain to her restless younger sister via transatlantic telephone the reasons why a marriage may be worth saving. "Outside of raising Lucy," demands her sister, "why have you stayed with Martin and to what degree is your marriage real?"
But can a younger woman who grew up without benefit of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals understand "that stuff about how even when things get bleak or tough ... you whistle a happy tune and keep your head erect like Deborah Kerr...?" Julia wonders. And how can she tell her sister about that special moment, back on their honeymoon, when she and Martin realized that they wanted to grow old together?
In "Observing the Niceties," a grown-up daughter visiting her mother at a home for the elderly searches for a way to help this apparently helpless woman, once so proud.
"Life is meant to offer solutions," she reflects, "if you look hard enough you are meant to find the way out of things, the forest paths and mountain tunnels miraculously offering escape in all those stories Mother used to read us night after night...." But the most she can offer her parent is tea, sympathy, and the special cookies that her mother used to serve with such ceremony and elegance so many years ago.
The infatuated heroine of "Throwing and Catching" trustingly follows the advice of a handsome psychology professor and takes an unexpectedly tough summer job at a mental hospital, where she learns about her patients, her former idol, and herself. Her narrative flawlessly conveys emotion without resorting to sentimentality, and disillusionment without cynicism.
Huggan expertly blends wit and anxiety in "The Violation," in which a city-bred woman eager to adapt to country life is unnerved to find herself alone in her kitchen with a surly farmer:
"I was snared by the pull of wanting to please, and the push of wordless voices ... warning me of danger.... I was about to offer him ... chicken soup ... when the voices found words.... `So. You say he forced his attentions upon you. But haven't you already admitted to the court you made it abundantly clear to the accused that he was welcome? ... Do you deny that you offered him homemade chicken soup?' "
Two of the stories are set in Kenya, where the author has spent time. Although executed with her usual finesse and sensitivity, these are perhaps the weakest: By now most readers have probably read too many similar accounts of the awkwardness of being a well-intentioned white person in Africa.
Huggan's best stories, like miniature novels, summon up entire little worlds: the tenor of a relationship or a group of lives that suddenly becomes apparent in the events of a brief weekend or afternoon.
"On Fire" is a close-up of two couples vacationing at a lake. As we watch the subtle interplay among these friends, random remarks and actions take on a heightened significance that foreshadows their uncertain futures.
In "Sitsy," Huggan demonstrates her skill at presenting marriage from the husband's viewpoint: "John had the uneasy sense ... that he didn't really see [what his wife meant] but that he had better pretend to see or else everything would turn sour. Emma would become distant and cold, would say that clearly he was incapable of ever being on her wavelength." As the day wears on, John's vague anxieties prove to have been all too prescient.
The beautiful story that concludes this collection, "Knowing People," is narrated by Clare, a Canadian woman revisiting the isle in the Hebrides where she spent an unforgettable summer 25 years ago at the cottage of a delightful old couple. Reminiscing with the wife, now widowed and in her 80s, Clare is surprised by this down-to-earth woman's warm memories of Clare's fellow student boarder, an uppity Englishman.
As Clare sorts through the threads of her own recollections, she is struck by how hard it is to really know people or to understand the mysterious ways in which life's patterns are woven. "Why we enter each other's lives and how we are meant to fit together is more than is given us to know," she concludes. "And yet that's what we want, isn't it? That's what we want to understand." This understanding is the elusive and rewarding goal of Isabel Huggan's fiction.