cover image Women with Men

Women with Men

Richard Ford. Alfred A Knopf Inc, $23 (255pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45469-4

Ford's first book since his bestselling and award-winning Independence Day offers three long stories (their action is too concentrated for novellas) in which men try to come to terms, uneasily, with the countless imponderables of a woman's heart. Two stories featuring Americans trying, without much success, to adjust to contemporary Paris flank an offbeat coming-of-age tale set in Montana. In the first Parisian story, ""The Womanizer,"" businessman Martin Austin attempts to establish an affair with an attractive French divorcee with a small son, only to mess things up disastrously with his wife at home and then with his would-be lover, too. In the other, ""Occidentals,"" college teacher and first-novelist Charley Matthews is in Paris with a lover, trying to meet the would-be translator of his book for a French publisher and avoid his mistress's Ugly-Americans-in-Paris friends. In both narratives, the male protagonists' senses of alienation--from their surroundings and themselves--is palpable; and in each a violent climactic incident causes a sudden shift in perspective, without necessarily granting illumination. ""Jealous,"" the most memorable of the three stories, finds Ford firmly on home ground as a teenage boy leaves his father in a wintry dusk with a pretty but erratic aunt to visit his estranged mother in Seattle. The darkening weather hints of danger and hidden relationships, and the brilliantly observed barroom catastrophe that brings the story to a climax contributes to a tour de force. Ford is a writer whose directness of utterance and keen eye is combined with a remarkably subtle sense of the human comedy, all qualities exemplified here, though on a smaller canvas than fans of his novels would wish. 75,000 first printing. (June)