As intensely poetic and deeply felt as her first novel (During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, 1983), Chase's latest proves her a master of domestic portraiture, for here she brings to life—through a series of alternating voices—a family as emotionally complex and uniquely American as the matriarch in her earlier book. Though he never gets to tell his own story, Francis Clemmons dominates this narrative as he dominates those who do speak here—his three children and his second wife. Ever since first wife Phoebe died, Francis, an unsuccessful musician with a mean tongue and a penchant for morbidity, struggles to keep his brood of "miniature adults" intact. His eldest daughter, Margy, acts as mother of her younger siblings, Ruthann and Tommy, and as a consequence she's mature beyond her years. Since the age of 12, this curly-haired blonde has had a figure to match her adult behavior, a voluptuousness that makes her prey to the wolves in the title—those men who lead women into temptation and sin. Ruthann, a better student than her sister, nevertheless shows poorer judgment in affairs of the heart; one minute, she flirts with nymphomania, the next she's born again. And before she finishes high school, she elopes with a young minister, a man much approved of by her God-fearing and germ-obsessed stepmother—a priggish war widow who's only goal is "to be truly a 'helpmeet,' as God intended" for her difficult husband, who, once he's settled into a boring job in suburban Virginia, continues to pursue "frugality for its own sake." Craving the middle-class respectability that Francis scorns, Gloria is "stubbornly literal-minded" in her husband's view, but she puts up with his abusive fits. In fact, his volatile nature—his vulgar rages as well as his manic wit—keeps this family on the edge. Only young Tommy, the apple of his stepmother's eye, seems immune to his father's outrageous behavior, substituting an alternative reality fed by war stories and tales of adventure. Episodic and atmospheric, this intoxicating fiction follows Margy and Ruthann through their uneasy transitions to womanhood—a period during which they play with fire and manage to remain unscathed. Ripe and inflamed, like the burgeoning sexuality it depicts, this truly marvelous novel discovers poetry in ordinary life.
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