The theme of longing in all its forms-for change, for redemption, for travel outside the bounds of daily life to realms where anything seems possibleunites this master story collection. In the extraordinary "Why China?" a man drags his family to the Xi'an province in a desperate attempt to reclaim his lost integrity, only to find himself more reomte and mysterious than the place where his journey led. In settings as exotic as Kenya and Bora Bora, as glamorous as downtown Manhattan, or as familiar as suburban Illinois, Egan's charactersmodels, housewives, schoolgirlsseek transformation of the body and spirit, and trancendence of the borders of desire."
Ranging in setting from provincial China to downtown Manhattan, the 11 short stories in Egan's first collection trace characters grappling with a wide variety of backgrounds and situations. But whether portraying the ennervated atmosphere of an exotic fashion shoot in Africa (``The Stylist'') or a teen's discovery of her father's secret life (``Puerto Vallarta''), Egan's writing is even more assured and convincing than it was in her debut novel, The Invisible Circus. In the chilling ``Sacred Heart,'' about a young girl's obsessive infatuation with her school's premier self-destructive rebel, Egan manages to sustain an atmosphere charged with menace without resorting to predictable shock effects. Many of the tales concern Americans abroad, characters who are disconnected from both their present environments and from the lives they've left behind. This theme finds its most persuasive expression in the dazzling ``Why China?'' in which a troubled San Francisco financial trader encounters the con man who once cheated him out of $25,000. With remarkable economy, Egan develops an uneasy cat-and-mouse game between the two men, as well as a rare depth of characterization for such a short work. While a smattering of the tales here seem like apprentice work by comparison-the title story, for instance, which concerns a hyper-trendy photographer's assistant in Manhattan-the collection as a whole showcases Egan as a writer of admirable ambition and accomplishment. (Feb.)