By Gene Lyons
Updated July 31, 1992 at 04:00 AM EDT

American women seem to be offered two kinds of domestic novels these days: romantic fantasies of prenuptial bliss and bitter tales about divorce. At first glance, Jane Shapiro’s concise, aphoristic After Moondog could be mistaken for one more example of the Men Are Rats school of fiction — Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, say, moved to the academic exurb of Princeton, N.J.

But Shapiro’s a better novelist than that, possessing a combination of wit and compassion that allows her to make readers empathize with her characters even as she exposes their follies. After Moondog is told in short takes, brief epiphanies that evoke a failed marriage and its aftermath with genuine feeling.

Joanne and William Green married during the mid-’60s, in an atmosphere of cultural turmoil and absurd optimism. ”I remember my sister, Rhoda, eighteen years old, standing in a blue satin dress near some pots of mums whispering, ‘Don’t get married. You’ll die.’…Nobody cried ‘What! You’re children! Get back into your playsuits!’ After the wedding, we drove off in our Volkswagen Beetle, zooming and bucking, my hand under his as he shifted.” Soon enough, however, adulthood arrives in the form of two children, career disappointments, and mutual betrayals.

Complaining that her husband no longer listens, Joanne takes up with an economics professor who travels the world and leaves somewhat less than intimate messages on her answering machine: ”Djakarta is changing and it’s becoming visible. They’ll have a middle class soon-they’ll be ready for the fast-food and motorbike stage.” Her own transgressions, moreover, make her no less able to accept her husband’s when they inevitably — and comically — occur. Despite strong feelings for one another and their children, Zack and Nora, the couple decides to separate.

Telling the kids takes on special poignance. ”We portrayed ourselves as having finally arrived at confidence in the rightness of our plan for Willie to spend some time across town,” Joanne admits. ”We sounded like wonderful human beings and we felt like murderers…Dizzy with uncertainty, we said we were sure.” For months afterward, the two have clandestine late-night meetings. ”If sleeping together was a hindrance to divorce,” Joanne’s lawyer tells her, ”everybody in America would still be married.”

Their divorce final, William’s and Joanne’s lives move gradually, but never completely, apart. Family matters bring them together: graduations, medical emergencies, funerals. While the second half of the novel lacks the focus of the first, Shapiro’s account of what her psychiatrist calls ”the inevitable disquietude of spirit in a house where adolescents live” will be wryly familiar to any reader who has ever tried it. Even in the age of AIDS, a friend of Joanne’s supposes, ”on balance the safest illicit activity currently available to kids was making love. ‘At least while they’re having sex they can’t be driving the car a hundred miles an hour,’ she said. Passing the dining room, Nora called pleasantly, ‘Why can’t they?”’

It’s from moments like these that Shapiro has crafted this humane, funny little novel.