It may have been largely ignored, but Ford's The Playhouse (1980) was one of the finest, plainest American first novels in recent years; and this second book, though less steadily, starkly involving (and more self-consciously literary), confirms the presence of a distinctive talent. Again, Ford's locale is the lower-middle-class, two-family-house Somerville area north of Cambridge, Mass.--beginning in 1959, when Christine Scarps is 17. A big-nosed loner, forever yelled at by powerful Ma (whose family had money), unable to enchant beloved Papa (whose favorite is asthmatic little sister Anna), Christine cautiously turns for love to 19-year-old Sandy Cole, local auto mechanic and cousin of the notoriously rotten Rimpole brothers. Their unclichÃ‰d courtship consists at first of exchanging family stories, then gradually moves to non-intercourse sex. But the romance goes sour, dissolves--as Christine, yearning for Something Better, takes a Boston job as assistant to chic, novice art-gallery-owner Charlotte Grayling. . . and undergoes a 1960s transformation: she emerges as a severe, photogenic beauty, discovers literature, moves in with Charlotte and her dilettante stepbrother Braden, who becomes Christine's off-and-on lover. (Charlotte's too, perhaps.) Meanwhile, back home in Somerville, Ma tries to lay a guilt-burden on her unmarried daughter--by cutting off all her hair. (A failure: ""Christine was unflummoxed by the sight of a nearly bald Ma. 'It suits you, Ma,' she said, walking around to admire the cut from all angles."") More importantly, frail sister Anna maintains a hold on over-protective Christine--a tricky relationship which is further complicated when old-flame Sandy now courts and weds the younger sister. And Christine finds herself breaking away from marriage-minded Braden, withdrawing from her new world, becoming preoccupied with the old neighborhood (the fight to block a new expressway), and--despite herself--hovering over the fragile newlyweds. . . until Anna's breakdown bares Christine's jealous, possessive, destructive drives: ""I love you very much,"" says Anna, recovering in the asylum, ""but you have to leave me alone."" True, Ford overloads this short book with thematic, psychological material (Sandy's father and Christine's priest-brother are both near-clinical cases, for example, who are sketched in but not explored); the Christine/Sandy/Anna triangle is too thinly arrived at; and the novel as a whole seems over-tooled, without the stripped-down clarities of The Playhouse. But individual sequences here are splendid, ironic, touching--and the Italian/Irish milieu is, as before, projected with uncommon ease and haunting particularity.