Those unsatisfied by the open-ended ambiguity of contemporary short stories may take joy in this collection. These are stories in the tradition of Maugham, de Maupassant, and Isak Dinesen. Godwin is the author of such distinguished novels as ''A Mother and Two Daughters'' and ''The Odd Woman.'' Her fiction in this volume includes a novella/memoir and five shorter works. All employ a character or (as in the title novella) a pair of characters who act upon the protagonist as a Muse. So serendipitously do they turn up to point obliquely to the solution of dilemmas that they might well be mistaken for fairy godmothers. The settings are contemporary. These are not fairy stories, but there is something of the timeless and fey, and a good deal of the tale, about them.
''Mr. Bedford'' is a reminiscence of curious characters and mysterious doings encountered by a young American when she responds to an ad in the London Evening Standard. The ad offers a bed-sitter room, two meals included, in the South End. Only gradually does the fledgling US Embassy employee learn that her landlords are more than she bargained for. The special resonance of chance acquaintance, reencountered, informs ''A Father's Pleasure.'' Concert pianist Rudolph Geber, ''a man of charm, to whom life came easily,'' instinctively adopts just the odd approach that brings happiness to his son, two wives, a waif, a flamenco singer and himself.
The title character of ''The Amanuensis'' has a double motive in offering her services, gratis, to a famous novelist. Unbeknownst to her, the novelist, meanwhile, is suffering a frightening bout of writer's block. Another novelist, afraid that he has dried up, is the central character of ''St. John.'' A reclusive typist with a gift for gab and a strange taste in clothing, and an elusive widow with a British accent and the same surname as the author's, become his double Muse.
''The Angry Year'' turns on the love/hate affair an impoverished scholarship student carries on with herself, her journalistic ambitions, and the wealthy fraternity-sorority set at her university. In ''A Cultural Exchange,'' another student rushes to Denmark because, ''I was twenty-one and terrified I would not get the most out of life.'' She spends an up-and-down winter as the paying guest of a cantankerous patriarch and his flatful of ghosts.
Godwin admires Isak Dinesen, and her stories are worthy of that tale-telling enchantress. They contain ornate little worlds in which seemingly disparate complexities draw together in the end. Like Dinesen, Godwin so values a tidy symmetry that she sometimes sacrifices too much of life's randomness to it. Therefore, some of Godwin's stories, almost too neatly shaped, are ingenious diversions rather than affecting epiphanies. Her plots are compelling; her atmospheres and imagery bewitching. The collection is as satisfying as a warm drink by a fire.