Edmund Richter, Sophie Ross, Claire Sanford: these three have been a troika of the closest friendship for 30 years. Now, to help each other over the stile of middle-aged depression, they travel to Russia together for a shared tourist trip. In fact, the trio's acquaintance began because Edmund's Russian-Ã‰migrÃ‰ mother was the studio pianist at the New York ballet school attended by Sophie and Claire as girls; and through adolescence and young adulthood, the three have kept faith (sharing bodies now and then, too). Edmund, a painter shot very young into high orbit of acclaim, has turned renunciator, backing off into the life of a Berkeley art historian finally paralyzed into emotional stasis by fear of imperfection. Claire, childhood nurse of wounded animals, has married and given birth--but all the while she has shaped herself into an aggressive Conscience: antiwar, pro-rights (civil, human), even a stint as a contemplative Anglican nun. And Sophie, daughter of a high-class New York talent agent, has been the worldliest of the three, ending up as a Barbara Walters-like TV correspondent. But only friendship--not love or success--has stayed a constant for them all; an intellectual and emotional cross-nurturing. Gray (Lovers and Tyrants) explores those textures in a mandarin garden of a book--a voluptuously atmospheric novel that blends the three life-histories in such rich and deliberate prose that we're more consistently aware of the novel's surface than of the lives themselves; only in one small scene-the dying of Edmund's ancient cat--is the experience here directly involving, immediately affecting. But if Gray views her characters from a distractingly high perch, she also displays intelligence and discretion and the need to invest fiction with human usefulness--so this is something like a modern-day Edith Wharton novel: of limited appeal and impact, but undeniably worthy.