Finding the Perfect Word For the Perfect Page ... ... to Fill the Perfect Book


By Harriet Doerr

Viking, 210 pp., $19.95

Harriet Doerr made her debut as an author rather late in life. In 1984, the then-septuagenarian wrote ''Stones for Ibarra,'' which won the American Book Award for First Fiction the following year. A collection of linked stories set in a little village in Mexico, ''Stones for Ibarra'' demonstrated its author's keen powers of observation and finely honed, spare prose style.

Doerr's second novel, ''Consider This, Senora,'' was an impressive follow-up. Published in 1993, and also set in Mexico, it focused on the experiences of three expatriate women from the United States hoping to find refuge or a fresh perspective by relocating south of the border.

A California native who spent a good deal of time in Mexico with her husband, Doerr has proved herself a cool yet sympathetic chronicler of offbeat northern expatriates searching for meaning, and of rural Mexican villagers more likely to accept their lives fatalistically. In the eponymous short piece that opens her new book, ''The Tiger in the Grass,'' she recounts some of the highlights of her own life story.

Doerr attended Smith College and Stanford University but left before graduating to marry and raise a family. Following her husband's death decades later, the widow, encouraged by her son, decided to return to college and get her degree. She began taking writing classes, reviving a lifelong love of literature.

Her fellow students, at first somewhat shocked by her grandmotherly appearance, soon accepted her as one of them. ''We believed we weren't asking for miracles,'' Doerr recollects. ''All we wanted was the perfect word in the perfect sentence that, when

multiplied, would fill the pages of the perfect book. A few of us, not including me, were published, and I sat next to them in awe. I used to look at the faces of people crossing streets, waiting on benches for a bus, standing in lines at the box office, and never found a person who appeared likely to read anything I wrote.''

Doerr's engaging modesty masked a powerful determination to achieve her own distinctive voice. The 15 short pieces in this collection include fiction and nonfiction: three early works from her writing-class days; six stories evoking her beloved Mexico; four brief pieces paying tribute to the force of memory; and a longer story encapsulating the life of ''Edie,'' an Englishwoman whose solid presence lends stability to the lives of five motherless children, even through their widowed father's subsequent failed marriages.

Two of the Mexican stories feature Richard and Sara Everton, the expatriate couple of ''Stones for Ibarra,'' who came to Mexico for Richard to open and operate a mine. ''How much longer will you be here?'' a visiting friend inquires, wondering how the ''experiment'' is working out. But the Evertons ''had long ago stopped thinking of the mine ... as an experiment. The experiment had turned, almost from the beginning, into a lifelong effort.''

Doerr's dry humor and muted pathos invest even her slightest pieces. And some are very slight indeed: five-finger exercises for a writing class, neatly accomplished. Yet she tackles more difficult subjects as well, including the sad, chilling plight of an 11-year-old Mexican girl at the mercy of an abusive uncle.

This latest book lacks the sustained impact of those more substantial works. But readers will also find much here to appreciate.

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