Picks and Pans Review: The Longings of Women

updated 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/04/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Marge Piercy

It's hard to imagine what these three have in common. There's Leila Landsman, a middle-aged writer who finally divorces her philandering husband; Mary Burke, Leila's secretly homeless cleaning lady; and Becky Burgess, a middle-class housewife who convinces her teen lover to murder her husband. But in this absorbing novel, Piercy connects these disparate lives, finding that their needs and desires are remarkably similar.

The connections are precarious. (The way Leila finds Mary a home is a contrivance; ditto Leila's lesbian friend who serves as a kind of Greek chorus to criticize men.) But Piercy's sense of time and place are extraordinary.

Mary is particularly affecting, a woman who has been abandoned by her upper-middle-class husband and then by society. Like Becky (obviously based on Pamela Smart, the New Hampshire schoolteacher who persuaded her teenage lover to kill her husband in 1990) and Leila, Mary is a powerful example of how women fight for their dignity in the most unspeakable circumstances.

To repeat that point while keeping the reader eagerly turning pages is Piercy's most notable achievement. (Fawcett, $22)

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