Within a popular three-generational framework and a rich sense of place, an ambitious, occasionally potent novel--beginning in 1888 upper-class Manhattan--that explores the fearful legacy of child abuse in the lives of three women. Young Lydia Franklin, child of stodgy widower Charles, was a cheerful sprout in a gloomy Manhattan brownstone, delighting in the playful attentions of Charles' handsome gadabout brother James. But eventually Uncle James' play became strange and horrifying. At 16, then, abused Lydia--worn by years of silent suffering, tortured by memories of a night of shame and a fiery death--is on her way to permanent mental illness. She is rescued by psychiatric treatment ahead-of-its-time, though, and goes on to marry solid farmer, Yale grad George Webster; bear four children; work tirelessly for women's suffrage; and be elected to state office. Meanwhile, driven by the need to play many roles, and play them perfectly, Lydia wants to perfectly raise her only daughter, Charlotte. ""I will give you a tough shell, a way to protect yourself,"" Lydia vows at the baby's birth. Charlotte's ""tough shell,"" however, will enclose guilt (there's a childhood accident with a gun) and shut out love. (Her surrogate mother--an intelligent nanny--will be sent away as was the child Lydia's nurse.) Later, Charlotte's daughter Molly, an artist probing for both an artist's persona and a history, returns to the Webster farmhouse after grandmother Lydia's death. In the last days of a beloved housekeeper and the house (Charlotte has sold house and grounds to a member of the Italian family whose fortunes had brought both redemption and grief to the Websters), Molly will discover, through Lydia's secret journals, and a new dialogue with Charlotte, the real story about the loss of Molly's beloved alcoholic father--in a sense a further victim of the hideous acts of another most charming man years before. Although now and then characters tend to thin to illustration--the adult Charlotte is a case in point--the author, who has received considerable recognition for her shorter fiction and for her novels for young people, writes with the ease and narrative punch of a practiced storyteller.