Faith McNulty's non-fiction account of a wife-abuse/husband-murder case--The Burning Bed (1980)--was neither probing nor dramatic, but at least it was grimly, exhaustingly, believable. And believability is the crucial item missing here--as gifted Yglesias (How She Died, Family Feelings), apparently at sea with people so different from those in her other fiction, details a somewhat similar fictional case in a small, rural New England town. Sally Sweetstir, 32, has a fight with her insensitive second husband Morgan (""Sweets"") and, sort of in self-defense, with half-conscious anger (""She wanted to win this fight""), stabs him to death. So Yglesias goes back to fill in Sally's lower-middle-class history: ""She had always aimed to please men,"" first her dour father, then her weak, much-older husband Vin (who got her pregnant at 15) and his Italian-family patriarchs (""Ya turned me into some kinda fuckin slave. . . . Everthin we got belongs ta ya goddam family""). Fed up with Vin, she goes to secretarial school, gets a job at an architectural firm, moves out with daughter Laura, and meets tattooed roadwork-foreman Sweets: a ""beautiful"" liar who likes s/m sex (""I'm gonna piss in ya twat, in ya asshole"") and--once they're married--beats up on her. So, a year or so later--with money problems, kid problems, and health problems too: the stabbing, the arrest, and the trial. Tearful Sally reads all the court documents, at first refuses to let her lawyers use Sweets' brutality as evidence. Finally, however, she admits both Sweets' rottenness and her own anger--""It was she who had killed, like a man""--and is acquitted. Presumably, Yglesias intends for Sally's story to illuminate a knot of issues: marital premises (""Her love was supposed to change her man""), the pathology of wife-beating, the conflicts of women being strong. But since neither Sally nor her world is credible for a moment--unconvincing dialogue, murky motivations--what remains is a flat, hackneyed narrative (""he offered his groin in a sweet, forbidden invitation"") and a muddleheaded clot of themes. Some initial grab in the subject-matter, of course, but disappointing work--unaffecting, ill-paced, strained--from a talented writer.