Paul is happily married, the father of four children--one of whom, he knows, is his wife's by another man. Forty-year-old Cindy's teenage daughter gets pregnant, and, by keeping the baby, teaches Cindy the meaning of love again. Meanwhile, Clarine learns to keep on going after the death of her husband of 41 years.

Why do we love to read lurid tales of strangers' woes? Despite the relentlessly upbeat endings of these sorrowful narratives, it is clearly the trauma, not the uplift, that keeps us turning the pages. Today's readers seem to have an endless appetite for these glimpses into the scandalous, safely doctored for easy consumption; one almost has the sense that the real appeal of these narratives is to reassure the reader that these things, at least, have not happened to him or her.

But every so often, despite the predictably happy endings, the charmingly written stories in "String of Pearls" can provide solace and inspiration. There are a few tales of real courage and compassion. In short, in the midst of the muck, there are indeed a few gleaming pearls.

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