It's an intricate dance, the Manhattan marriage shuffle, and, for a while, it appears that Joy Castleman, the plump and predatory protagonist of Howell's third novel, really knows how to rhumba. As the book opens, Joy, a has-been writer, is hard at work trying to reel in husband number three, a recently divorced would-be writer named Scott Arnold. Within minutes of their first meeting, she has finagled an invitation for a drink in his apartment and, by the time the Cointreau is poured, she has her plan of attack: ". . .to get him sufficiently infatuated to pay her back taxes of $217,000--it is a dream, but why not dream it?--she must convince him he is a great novelist whom she can mold and edit." Joy, it seems, is almost bewilderingly adept at convincing people of unlikely things--as her old friend Madeleine well knows. Joy once convinced Madeleine's lawyer husband, Ralph, to handle her divorce gratis. And then Joy convinced Ralph right into her bed. It is Madeleine, now shed of Ralph and happily remarried, who narrates this novel, and the device works nicely. Madeleine is cleareyed enough to see right to the center of Joy's devious little heart--and human enough, despite everything, to muster sympathy when Joy's scheme for Scott Arnold backfires and everything seems to fall apart. Howell (A Mere Formality; Balancing Acts) has a flair for the cynical. Baby-voiced Joy is a wonderful, reprehensible, fascinating character, and midwestern Madeleine is the perfect foil. At times, Howell's message seems a tad far-fetched--Madeleine becomes obsessed with the idea of Scott's ex-wife, Marisa, as some kind of feminist-goddess symbol. But mostly the novel makes one message clear: the dance may be all about marriage, but it's not romance that keeps these dancers twirling. It's power. The men lead. And the women pretend to follow. No new moves here, but great locomotion--funny, fast-paced, and frankly malicious.