By Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
August 17, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Mary Ladd Gavell’s fiction was never published during her lifetime; ”The Rotifer” was selected for an anthology in 1967, after her death, and again for last year’s ”The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” Now 16 of Gavell’s portraits of family life have been gathered for the first time in I Cannot Tell A Lie, Exactly, tales that dissect the internal truths of a largely suburban, post-WWII existence. Her women tend to be highly functioning housewives who leave no floor unscrubbed, while choking back a growing sense of alienation from the very things that define them. In ”Baucis,” a woman dreams of being widowed so she might have a ”nice long vacation” before joining her husband in heaven; in ”The Swing,” a mother dreams of meeting her grown son again as a 6-year-old, when conversation was simple. Not all of Gavell’s stories carry the same poignant heft, but one certainly can’t blame the author, who had no choice in what to include in this largely moving collection.

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