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'Girl's Guide' holds fast to belief in love

THE GIRL'S GUIDE TO HUNTING AND FISHING; By Melissa Bank; Viking; 274 pages; $23.95.Melissa Bank's first book is a satisfying treatise on love. "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" is a collection of short stories, mostly built around the life of a young woman named Jane.

When we first meet Jane, she's an adolescent, observing her older brother and his girlfriends. By the end of the book, she's fallen in love herself -- with a succession of sweet young men and once with a much older man who is clearly unsuitable. Even that flawed love affair is touchingly human.

Banks tells some of her stories in snippets. A scene, a conversation, another scene. Often they stand alone, making a point as they advance the plot. Here's an example:

Donna calls to ask about the wedding, and I tell her about (meeting) Robert. It feels good just to say his name, like he's still a clear and present danger. Then I have to say, "But he hasn't called."

She says, "Why don't you call him?"

I don't answer.

My devoted friend says, "I don't think you could have felt so strongly if he didn't feel the same way about you."

I say, "How do you feel about Jeremy Irons?"

What comes through in all her stories is Bank's tender heart and her over-arching belief in love, in its redemptive powers and its confusing complexities.

My favorite is the title story, a sendup of the book, "The Rules," which advances one of those old "Fascinating Womanhood" theories of how to catch a man through flirting, playing hard to get, playing dumb, holding out, etc.

Some critics have disparaged this particular story. To me, it is excellent and brings to life the disgust/respect conflict I feel for Dr. Laura and her ilk.

This story talks of courtship rituals and of the perversity of love, which often is about wanting something you can't have, and then, finally, painfully, deciding you can live without it . . . which is when you actually get it.