The characters in Rachel Cusk's The Lucky Ones push prams, not strollers, but they understand the world of raising children all too well. Cusk has a gift for articulating fluid, unsettling emotions just beneath the surface of consciousness, and while she spends a little too much time in her characters' heads, what interesting heads they are.
''The Lucky Ones'' consists of five loosely linked stories. In one, Martin temporarily abandons his wife and newborn daughter for a ski vacation with friends. Up and down the slopes, nearly killing himself with reckless stunts, the shape of his new life -- in which gratifying selfish desires is no longer paramount -- gradually sinks in.
Josephine surfaces first as a desirable single woman on Martin's ski trip. Two chapters later, she reappears as the frazzled parent of a newborn herself, trying to come to terms with her unsympathetic mother, who ''liked to see her children tied down by their children.'' Though Josephine is exhausted and vulnerable, her mother picks fights about everything from Josephine's choice of a baby name to her lack of shame about breast-feeding. They don't warn you about this in ''What to Expect the First Year.''
In the strongest story, Cusk slips into the superficially placid world of Vanessa, an aimless young housewife who pronounces herself ''the lucky one'' in her marriage because she gets to stay home with the children. Yet to remain ''lucky'' requires that she suppress dissatisfaction with her patently unpleasant husband, Colin. Over the course of this bleak tale, the chill of her marriage deepens, and while initially Colin seems to be at fault, by the end it's impossible not to assign Vanessa -- vague, distant, and maddeningly passive -- a good portion of the blame. Devoted to her children, she reflects in one of her moments of unnerving clarity that she may be unable to love Colin because he is not one of them.
Family life was every bit as sticky in John Updike's day -- just read a few chapters of ''Couples'' for a heady dose of Kennedy-era dysfunction. But at least Updike's saucy, adulterous young parents knew, when the cocktail party ended, who the breadwinner was and who would stagger out of bed if the baby awakened in the night. These contentious questions loom large in the less structured households described by Cusk, and her characters seem both bewildered and overwhelmed (though there's never any question that they love their kids). It turns out modern parents are as much of a mess as they ever were.