Elaine Kagan's years as a television and theater actress lend a dimension of theatrical perceptiveness to her writing. Her finely tuned ear captures character through dialogue at perfect pitch. The Girls, her first novel, gets off to a promising start in the monologues of five women, friends since high school 20 years earlier, after a sixth friend, Jessie, shoots her husband, Pete Chickery. A series of convincing testimonies by the women reveals a kaleidoscopic picture of Pete: stereotypical womanizer, wife- abuser, the ideal male who knows exactly how to enhance each woman's self-image, the perfect lover, and the hated brother. Pete Chickery, killed before the book begins, dominates the novel. The fast pace of the action prevents the characters and the reader from questioning the assumption that Jessie killed Pete in self-defense. The image of Pete as a violent man is sustained both by what Jessie tells us and by the reminiscing of their son James. Even Jessie's rampage of self-destruction that ends with a slashed wrist does not prepare us for Pete's final postmortem monologue in which he recounts the events of the fateful Tuesday morning: how he followed Jessie to their friends' house because he couldn't bear to leave town without a reconciliation; how his motive was love, not violence; how, seeing Jesse pointing the gun at her own throat, he saved her but was accidentally killed when the gun went off in the struggle. Despite a writing style that is crisp and clean, tightly woven, with the dramatic punch of a whodunit, we are left with the unanswered question: Was Pete a hero or a villain? To make a reader suspend disbelief, a writer must sustain that reader's trust. In the end, this novel breaks that trust with a surprise ending that runs counter to the evidence we've been given.