I Cannot Get You Close Enough by Ellen Gilchrist. Little, Brown: 391 pages; $19.95.

"Is it complicated to love another person, or simple?" Lydia asks Daniel.

Complicated: lives are full of trauma, confusion, wrong choices, death. Ellen Gilchrist doesn't hold back on the tragedy part. But, she reasons, aren't all these traumas just signs of our beautiful mortality, indicators that our blood flows and that we are alive and can still love and give to others?

That's a hard concept to get across--dirt clod kicking despair as part of a whole and happy life. Gilchrist manages it in this book of three novellas, each written in a different style. Her descriptions of her characters' complicated emotions--love, anger, confusion--vibrate electrically right off the paper.

Anna Hand, a writer whose posthumous notes make up the first novella, is helplessly angry and consumed with trying to save her niece, Jessie, from her negligent mother. Rich and famous but still powerless, Anna asks, "Why are people so goddamn shrewd and obvious and dangerous?" She resolves: "I must write until I know." And she must fight until her niece is safely under her wing.

Gilchrist spends painstaking time filling in every detail of her compassionate portraits of adults adoring the young. Their overwhelming, consuming love lasts through even the worst traumas, difficulties and stubborn phases. They may be fighting for their children's rights, or just sitting and quietly playing Monopoly thinking how precious youth is. Traceleen, the Hand family maid, considers: "The young are all we have and we should worship them because they still have moments that are not sullied with the darkness of remorse and adultery and hate."

The second novella moves toward another child, Jessie's half-sister: Olivia de Havilland Hand, a young girl growing up on an Oklahoma reservation. She learns that the famous writer Anna Hand is her aunt and begins yearning for what she considers her "true" family. She wants to leave the country and her horse and her gentle family find her destiny in North Carolina. A condensed version of anyone's self at one point or another, Olivia begins a poignant journey after a picture book life she thinks she wants.

The maid Traceleen, one voice among several in the third novella, describes most of a summer vacation in Maine. Observing, she reminds us, "Only a fool would think they understand the smallest thing about why people do the things they do." A teenage couple gets married. A woman sleeps with her best friend's husband. Traceleen only shakes her head and murmurs that this too, shall pass away. And we believe her because three young women blossom and a blocked artist begins to paint again.

What is a happy ending? Surely nobody finds Emerald City at the end of this book. But everyone goes on, in a gorgeous dance of trying, trying.