THE LADIES OF MISSALONGHI by Colleen McCullough (Harper & Row: $10.95; 80 pp.).

"The Ladies of Missalonghi" is the first book in Harper & Row's new series of illustrated short fiction. Handsomely bound with lovely gray fabric spines and clean, attractive printing, they are slim volumes, pleasantly heavy to the hand.

McCullough's novella is set in pre-World War I small-town Australia, but it is not really "historical"; rather it uses the period setting to heighten its "Romance" elements. Our heroine, who is subject to fainting spells and dreams formed by the romance novels she borrows secretly from the lending library, creates her own salvation in the arms of a lusty and mysterious newcomer, throwing aside her hated brown "weeds" for a scandalously red wedding dress and a marriage she has boldly arranged for herself.

Like the other books in the series--Fay Weldon's "Rules of Life" and Ruth Rendell's "Hearthstones"--the tone of "Ladies" is tongue-in-cheek and rather archly literary. "Ladies" is an amusing romp, short and sweet. But what is curiously unmentioned in Harper & Row's publicity sheet is the Gothic element of these three books. I wonder if this will be a characteristic of the series in general, and if so, why? Is the whole idea of nicely bound short novellas a bit precious in itself, that its subject matter has to be so light and safe?

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