Three novels: turbulent times and touching, tangled lives

In the Shadow of the Peacock, by Grace Edwards-Yearwood. New York: McGraw-Hill. 279 pp. $17.95. Like most first novels, this one undoubtedly depends heavily on autobiographical elements. What gives the story its punch is the turbulent time and place that are described - growing up in Harlem, 1943 to 1964.

The Peacock is a neighborhood bar that belts out the blues of Al Hibbler and Thelonious Monk. Living in its shadow, and in the domineering shadow of countless strutting male peacocks, are upward-bound Celia, her overly protective mother, Frieda, and a precocious school chum, Tessie. The three women make their way through more than their share of harrowing experiences (race riots, tragic deaths, and painful love affairs) to emerge intact and still looking forward.

The action races too fast at times, especially in the final eight pages, and there are a couple of unnecessarily torrid sexual encounters. But this is true-to-life Harlem, ``buried under a gray heroin blanket,'' and the author captures the rhythms and moods of two volcanic decades, channeling the pulsating whole into a largely affirmative black American odyssey. Sailing, by Susan Kenney. New York: Viking. 318 pp. $18.95.

In Susan Kenney's follow-up book to her highly acclaimed ``In Another Country,'' Sara and Phil Boyd are still dealing with Phil's exhausting, life-threatening illness. But this time around, they are taking some tentative steps toward emotional, if not physical, well-being.

It's an wrenchingly unforgettable story that opens with Sara's purchase of a handsome 26-foot sloop - a symbol of her hope that Phil will live to sail another summer. When he sets a genoa jib and tacks across the wind, he regains the control over his own experience that he has had to relinquish to doctors and interns ashore.

As she balances Sara's protective optimism with Phil's pragmatic pessimism, Sara's need to talk it all out with Phil's desperate desire to be alone, Kenney negotiates a challenging literary tightrope with poise. Passages of shattering physical intensity in hospitals are similarly balanced with intimate glimpses of a marriage put to profound tests. The novel draws heavily on the author's experience with her own husband's illness, and while it's not for the squeamish, it has much to say about the often shaken but ultimately unbreakable human spirit. Second Chances, by Alice Adams. New York: Knopf. 257 pp. $18.95.

This sixth novel by the author of ``Superior Women'' is vintage Adams - mannered, topical, fey, and highly enjoyable. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a year in the lives of six friends who've settled in the upscale California town of San Sebastian. They're an affluent lot - journalist, poet, artist, socialite, one-time radical, and gay-rights activist - who are coasting into their 50s and 60s and pausing occasionally to wonder if they'll have any ``second chances'' to make up for past regrets and mistakes. Theirs is an existence filled with dinner parties, long walks, and lingering conversation.

As Adams explores the relationships between these friends, the reader grows to forgive their eccentricities and appreciate their devotion to one another. They worry about friends and lovers leaving, about ending up lonely, but by novel's end each has begun to lean less on others and to be more self-sufficient Would that we all had as interesting a circle of intimates.

Diane Manuel reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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