Flashbacks at the ready, artist Violet Clay--thirtyish, jobless, broke, drinking heavily in her Manhattan digs--broods over life and Art as she sketches her latest freelance assignment in Gothic book jackets: "over two hundred women running away from houses." Violet has left (with little regret) the structures that would "contain" her--a mild husband, an affair, the prospect of a supermarket-and-babies marriage. Most baffling and frustrating however, are her elusive creative faculties, which seem to lie in a coma. But then Violet is abruptly plunged into the "winding passageways, and trap doors, and dark stairways" of her own fears--through someone else's tortured psyche and art. Her uncle Ambrose, last member of their unhappy and death-ridden Southern family, kills himself while living in a cottage in the woods. It was high-rise Ambrose who had first displayed Manhattan to Violet: "We have to make our impression down there but the real thing is the bird's eye view. . . You've got to go through me, kid." Yet Ambrose, who published one novel in his youth, could never leave those aerial fantasies for the street drudgery of work and deed; with the years, his possibilities simply ran out. Violet brings her own demons to the late Ambrose's cottage for her last mighty try to get past externals and appearances in her art, and she even plays out a mock suicide. Liberation arrives in the person of "Sam," a young woman who, after a cruel life, has "built her own house." And with Violet's portrait of Sam--who has survived hell--her drugged talent at last awakes to sing. Godwin's quick, amusingly sharp-tongued narrative assigns the feminist slant to a rich undertone rather than an overlay, making this a bright, but not uncompassionate scoring of the corrosive, self-pitying dramas we block out for ourselves when we live our lives as bad fiction.