April 21, 1997 12:00 PM

by John Dufresne

Like almost any self-respecting novel, Love Warps the Mind a Little deals with love, death and the vagaries of human emotion. What makes this book better than most is the author’s skill at capturing the ambivalence of intimate relationships, the way closeness can both stir an urge for distance and make a stranger seem suddenly desirable. Lafayette Proulx is a would-be fiction writer who quits his job, leaves his wife and moves in with a psychotherapist named Judi. Hot and heavy when their love was adulterous, the twosome can’t really connect now that they live together. She’s distracted by wacky explorations of her past lives and by an attractive patient.

Meanwhile, Laf, as Proulx is called, mulls over his wrecked marriage: How could love just evaporate? But then Judi is diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, and she and Laf are drawn back together, not in a music-swelling, melodramatic manner but in a way that’s nonetheless satisfying as they struggle with the shock of impending death. Dufresne paints no fancy pictures, but he succeeds in depicting life as it is really lived. (Norton, $23)

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