A lyrical, dramatic first novel, from the author of a well-received story collection (Alligator Dance, 1994), traces the passages and passions of women's lives with an ardent empathy that will remind many of the fiction of Barbara Kingsolver. Peery's richly detailed story is set in Mexico and southwest Texas over the past 50 years. It begins with the rough journey toward womanhood of (MarÂ¡a) Luisa CantÂ£, who grows up in the impoverished town of Salsipuedes, both victimized and shaped by her family's ill luck and her culture's self-denying religiosity. Later, when she's a young unmarried mother and again pregnant, Luisa is hired by Texas farmer Thomas Hatch and becomes maid to his arrogant, abrasive wife Edwina (""Eddie""). Both mistress and servant deliver babies soon thereafter, and their own fates and those of their children become forever entwined. Peery creates an eloquent contrast between the imperious Eddie, who'll live out her days regretting and atoning for the harm she can't stop causing, and the serene (though not servile) Luisa, who will keep for many years the secret ""don Toms"" entrusts to her and will survive, in her fashion, the loss of loved ones and her realization that girlhood dreams dissolve in adult compromises and disappointments (""I thought I would be better than I am""). The novel is flawed by occasional sentimentality and infrequent intrusions of melodramatic contrivances (e.g., Vietnam, draft-dodging, and potsmoking) that seem to betray a determination to make its episodes representative of the several eras it covers so capably. Other episodes, however--such as Eddie's confrontation with a gang of Mexican kids who claim her car has run one of them over--vibrate with energy and tension. A strong story, peopled with credible, complex characters with whom we come, in some Gases despite ourselves, to identify.