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Our Kind: A Novel

in Stories

By Kate Walbert

Scribner, 195 pp., $23

These beautiful, heartbreaking stories focus on a group of women who came of age, married, and had children in the wealthy suburbs in the 1950s. Schooled in "the three Gs: Grooming, Grammar, and Grace," they went on to follow the pattern of life "like the pattern on the bone china handed down and handed down, again." The pattern provides some solace and comfort but mostly boredom and regret.

In the most moving story, "Back When They Were Children," the women recall their daughters sledding with rosy cheeks and mittened fingers or parading proudly in decorated party hats. Now the girls are gone, unknowable, terrifying in their distance and strangeness. Viv recalls with remorse the scholarship she turned down in favor of marriage in "The Beginning of the End." Megan, the ungainly daughter who committed suicide, haunts several stories, while Walter, the one loving and beloved husband, brightens the general romantic gloom of many others. The women, once rich and married, have been left by husbands for other women. Alone with the houses, pools, and tennis courts, they have pulled together, playing cards and golf, attending lectures, visiting each other in sickness, consoling each other after losses. They are free and unfettered; they could do anything. But they do very little; they huddle together in the cold, wearing cardigans, smoking, waiting.

Bergdorf Blondes

By Plum Sykes

Miramax, 320 pp., $23.95

The plot of this adorable and informative novel is straight out of Jane Austen -- the girl with the pure heart lands the boy with the prime real estate. But the setting is Park Avenue, New York, now. The unnamed heroine of the story chronicles the doings of her set: the PAPs, or Park Avenue Princesses, and FRGs, or Front Row Girls (as in front row at the Paris couture shows). These girls spend their days getting French manicures, Brazilian bikini waxes, and Alpha-Beta peels and their nights attending charity balls, art gallery openings, and restaurant reinventions, all with one purpose in mind -- to secure a PH, a prospective husband. For these girls, life's experiences can be divided into two categories, "icky" and "glam."

Our heroine, under pressure from her mother to marry a stuffy earl, falls for a handsome cad seriously channeling Jude Law. When he fails to buy her a mega-diamond and loses interest in trips to South America (see waxing above), she grows restive. After discovering that her next fianc is married and living in Connecticut with three children, she really can't deal. From this experience she learns that "there are some things in life that even a Bellini at Cipriani can't fix." Her next boyfriend provides another moral lesson -- never accept a ride on a PJ (private jet) with a man you've known for less than 24 hours. These "icky" experiences make her worry, "God, maybe life is more like 'Fargo' than 'High Society.' " Fortunately, this concern is unfounded; most of her life is utterly "glam."

Talking to the Dead: Kate and Maggie Fox and the Rise

of Spiritualism

By Barbara Weisberg

HarperSanFrancisco, 324 pp., $24.95

In 1848 in Hydesville, N.Y., 14-year-old Maggie and 11-year-old Kate Fox heard mysterious knockings in their bedroom. News of the uncanny sounds spread first to their small town, then to larger cities, and eventually to much of America, England, and even Russia.

The two girls, directed by their older sister Leah, appeared in public and held private seances during which the orchestrated rappings were interpreted as messages from the departed. Despite repeated physical examinations and investigations, doubters could find no proof of deception in the girls' performance. As they matured from innocent girls into experienced and famous mediums, the sisters succumbed to drink and drugs on one hand and a desire for marriage and respectability on the other. After a successful 40-year career, they denounced spiritualism as a tissue of lies, an elaborate fraud. Exactly why they persisted in the charade for such a long time and how they managed it so cleverly are left open questions. Why the country, in the midst of struggles for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights, was receptive to this spiritual and moral movement as well is another open and fascinating question raised by this provocative book.

Barbara Fisher is a freelance critic who lives in New York.

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