04/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
by A.S. Byatt
In this exquisite triptych, three sensitive middle-aged women, despite their English mastery at repressing emotion, all suffer a shock to the nervous system. A university classicist, drawn to a hair salon by a reproduction of Henri Matisse's Rosy Nude hanging above the coat rack, gets a bad cut—which triggers a rage against the loss of her chestnut mane and the ebbing of her beauty. A design editor loses, in the most unexpected way, the cleaning woman on whom she desperately depends to hold her household together. An art professor, lunching with an esteemed male colleague charged with sexual harassment, uncovers a painful bond between the accuser and the accused.
Byatt (whose best-selling novel Possession won Britain's Booker Prize in 1990) is working with a rather precious conceit—each story is inspired by a Matisse painting, which serves as a portal into the life she chronicles. Yet Byatt is never flashy or facile. Despite its scant 134 pages, Stories is richly drawn and touches upon things that matter to people: thwarted dreams and desires; loneliness and the longing to connect; the restorative power of kindness; the pleasures of flesh, color and creation. One of Byatt's artists asks, "Why bother, why make representations of anything at all?" The author has given us the answer: In the hands of a master, truth and beauty lie in the shadows and light. (Random House, $17)