The author of Alias Madame Doubtfire (1987) and, more recently, Step by Wicked Step (1996) mines a darker vein with this study in malevolence. Exploring the countryside around the elegant old hotel her father is now managing, Natalie first sees Tulip standing in a field holding a kitten; later in school Natalie makes overtures of friendship, not realizing until too late that Tulip is a social outcast and perennial discipline problem as well. Enthralled by Tulip's fearlessly antisocial behavior, Natalie surrenders her will and common sense, playing along in a succession of pranks, cleverly subtle harassment, and quiet, mean games with hair-raising names--Rats in a Firestorm or Road of Bones. In Fine's view, Tulip is to be pitied as much as feared, for her twisted, uncontrolled nature has been molded by an abusive father--but all of the adults in the story come in for a share of the blame, too, aware of Tulip's situation but, beyond handwringing, allowing it to continue. After a game of Wild Nights ends in arson, Natalie finds herself abruptly free of Tulip's spell and breaks off the friendship. Tulip retaliates, and on Christmas Eve, the hotel goes up in flames. Fine expresses with canny precision her protagonist's ambivalence and soul-searching, challenging readers to see how fascinating such repellent behavior can be. A moving, complex story.