A modern story of the classic quest for identity

Love Life, by James D. Houston. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 265 pp. $15.95. ``I always look for signs,'' the heroine announces on Page 2 of this fine novel. She looks for signs and finds them -- everywhere. The weather takes on Shakespearean overtones, and trips to the supermarket or the drugstore have cosmic significance. Holly Doyle looks for signs because she is lost, having suddenly found herself on a journey. Discovering her husband's infidelity has sent her into a spin. Set in the organic wilds of northern California, her quest is modern, but it is also classic, a search for the right and moral way. Hers is not a new story; there is no surprise ending, no mystery, but an admirable unraveling of how she gets from here to there.

``Love Life'' is a curiously virtuous book affirming in the midst of betrayal and infidelity the solid values of persistence, courage, and self-reliance. Holly lives in California but does not go to a therapist. She does not take her friends' advice nor that of her wisdom-laden mother-in-law. Holly does her own soul-searching and finds her own way.

Although the story flows through vaguely poetic chapter titles and believable dialogue, there are, nevertheless, some major irritations.

Holly's macho husband, for one. His feeble attempts to become a more sensitive man of the '80s will make readers wonder why she wants him at all. Generously speaking, he is simply not a likable enough character.

The author's female voice is another flaw. While Henry James made successful forays into the female psyche and D. H. Lawrence did not, James D. Houston makes a decent effort. But as often as it is accurate, fair and likable, Houston's female perspective is also weak, detached, and essentially untrue.

Finally, there are those signs. The vast symbolism given to everything from the weather to grocery shopping to country music lyrics overloads and desensitizes the reader. If everything takes on epic proportions, there is no contrast between what is important and what is not. The characters and events are not huge but ordinary, basic, and true. They exist where most of us live, in the day-to-day struggles for survival, in the very human battles of the heart. Perhaps instead of quoting Hank Williams, Hous ton should have turned to Yeats, who asked, ``Why should we honour those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.''

``Love Life'' is a kind and graceful story. Its message of learning through pain is not new, but it is nonetheless valuable. It is a sad, unsentimental story of real-life trouble and real-life choices, capturing its heroine at a particularly significant point in her life. It portrays moments of depth and courage not unlike the epiphanies James Joyce gave his Dubliners -- those very few precious times of clarity, when things coalesce and appear to make sense -- or even better, add up to truth.

James D. Houston is an ambitious author, attempting to plumb love, hate, honesty, fear, trust, and responsibility, all in 265 pages. His effort is valiant, his integrity intact. ``Love Life'' is a decent, moral tale.

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