Three Novels Explore Midlife Aimlessness

The characters in all the novels reviewed below go through a process of defining - a summing up of sorts. The authors' styles differ, but the questions they address are essentially the same: Who have we become and how did we get here?

THE TRACK OF REAL DESIRES, by Beverly Lowry (Alfred A. Knopf, 220 pp., $21). The setting of Beverly Lowry's most recent novel is a dinner party for an eccentric group of middle-aged friends in Eunola, Miss.

With offbeat humor, the author paints a gritty portrait of people who have somehow fallen off the track with the passage of time. Melanie and Baker Farrish are hosts of the party, given for beautiful Leland Standard, who returns to Eunola for a visit with her 19-year-old homosexual son and with a problem she hopes to keep secret. The quirky Farrishes have secrets of their own.

The guest list for the party is a wonderful mishmash of personalities. Sissy Westerfield has gained weight over the years but still dreams of happiness and success as a singer. Jane Scott Laws, who has returned to Mississippi to take care of what's left of her troubled family, has a lousy track record with men. She has hit a new low by dating Dog Boyette, a former all-American halfback and a ``typical aging southern man.'' Dog's wife, Totty, who wears a frozen smile on her face and harbors a secret from her past, accompanies him to the party.

The dinner, like the story, never drags, providing many surprises as the night progresses.

SPLIT SKIRT, by Agnes Rossi, (Random House, 223 pp., $20). Agnes Rossi follows her much-acclaimed novella, ``The Quick,'' with a new novel about two women struggling with their ``split selves.'' As she did in the other book, the author relies on the voices of her characters to tell their own stories.

Rita and Mrs. Tyler are cellmates in the Bergen (N.J.) County jail, where they are being held for three days. Although worlds apart in many ways - Rita is young and brash, while Mrs. Tyler is middle-aged and reserved - the women confide in each other about where they have gone wrong and how they ended up in jail. Along the way, they discover similarities and a kinship that surprise them both.

Mrs. Tyler, who was arrested for shoplifting, grew up poor in Atlantic City, N.J., but married a wealthy businessman. She never fully adjusts to her social, staid lifestyle and stealing becomes her secret pastime.

Rita also has lived a split life: In her early 20s, she was a rebellious drifter who dabbled in drugs. Eventually she married an older, stable man with two children. Often confused about her feelings for her husband and in their relationship, Rita found her marriage crumbling by the time she was arrested for possession of cocaine.

Rossi sometimes goes overboard in her effort to portray the difficulties of these two women of different generations. Though her female characters are fully drawn and believable, the men in this novel are spineless and generally unappealing.

NOW YOU SEE HER, by Whitney Otto, (Villard, 303 pp., $20). In Whitney Otto's second novel, a middle-aged woman finds herself disappearing, both literally and figuratively. Otto, author of the 1991 bestseller, ``How to Make an American Quilt,'' examines women's experiences as they grow older and find themselves overlooked by a society that places a high premium on youth. The book's flow is interrupted periodically by what seem to be unnecessary digressions, but Otto's style is unique and her story equally so.

Kiki Shaw is a fact-researcher for a TV game show in Los Angeles. As she approaches her 40th birthday, she discovers that she can pass her foot through her cat's body without disturbing the cat. Her colleague at work often comes into her office and promptly leaves again, thinking she is not there.

Trying to make sense of this phenomenon, Kiki begins to examine her life by taking stock of her friends' and family's lives and trying figure out how they fit in with her's.

Otto tends to hit the reader over the head with her premise that, for women, growing older is synonymous with disappearing. She is at her best when she allows her characters, and her tale, to speak for themselves.

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