A short way into this portrait of a Texas-bred lady--the book consists of her letters sent East or abroad from childhood to old age--one is immediately intrigued by what seems to be a satiric underbuzz. Lovely little Bess writes her husband-to-be in the first missive, in 1899, that she has seen to it that both will be on the same fourth:grade spelling team--all of which forecasts Bess' outsize talent for the management of other people's lives. Bess' prose style is serenely gracious, faintly violet-scented, but it becomes obvious that when problems are to be coped with, she can move quick as a newt: to establish, for example, an elderly relative in a nursing home, complete with furniture; to save her husband's business; or to speed a friend's marital separation. But as Bess' years pass--in tragedy (the death of her first husband and young son) and in love (three American courtiers and one exotic passion en passant in Italy)--one realizes that Bess is both bombazine and lace, and her tucked and gussied-up pensÃ‰es flutter like standards. A delightful reading of large, splashy doings in the small pond of an endearingly lively, bossy, responsible, and much-loving lady.