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Misfortunes are a given in `Nora Jane,' but so are happy endings

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``Nora Jane: A Life in Stories'' by Ellen Gilchrist; Back Bay Books ($14.95)


Nora Jane is a lucky woman.

Not that she avoids tragedy. Like many Southern characters, she encounters more than her share of unfortunate circumstances: war, death, illness, alcoholism, criminal activity, natural disasters, terrorism and unexpected pregnancy of uncertain paternity. But misfortune doesn't appear to leave a mark on her.

In this collection of stories, we first meet Nora Jane at the age of 14. She lives in New Orleans with her sad momma, who has found comfort in the bottle ever since Nora Jane's father died in the Vietnam War. Nora Jane spends most of her time with her paternal grandmother, a former opera singer who has settled down nearby. When her grandmother dies, Nora Jane has a choice: She can wallow in her misery and risk becoming her mother, or not. She chooses strength.

Her weakness comes along a few years later, in the form of a handsome bad boy named Sandy. He's a robber and he teaches Nora Jane his craft. She follows him to California, where she finds she's not the only woman in his life. Angry, hurt and in need of cash, she tries unsuccessfully to rob a bookstore owner, a wealthy eccentric named Freddy who of course falls in love with her. She succumbs to his kindness and devotion but eventually leaves him for Sandy, the great love of her life. She gets pregnant and isn't sure which man is the father. The pregnancy concludes in the dramatic birth of twin daughters in a remote mountain cabin.

The next story picks up her life 10 years later. She's happily married to Freddy. Sandy appears to be a distant memory. What happened? Good question. The answer can't be found in this book.

Nora Jane and Freddy and their friends and family go on to have many adventures, but the happy endings have become foregone conclusions. There are touching moments and fanciful tangents - Leonardo da Vinci makes an appearance, and there's also a magic cloak - but in the end, the book becomes the literary equivalent of cotton candy: fun to read but ultimately not very satisfying.


(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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