Like Ann Tyler, Watkins places her middle-aged wife and mother on the thin ice of a life crisis. But, while Tyler's women drift, bemused by the possibility of going under, Watkins' woman takes to dark waters like an otter thrashing about between downing and drowning. ""Living with you is like living inside a hi-fi,"" admits Alma's professor husband James. Yet the pair have a workable marriage--James ""had the right technique and equipment to subdue her crabby genes,"" and ""she gave him life outside the. . . library stack permit of his mind."" Add two teen-age children--good-looking, of capricious humors and stunning egocentricity--who are beginning to be ""hard to love."" One weekend in June, Alma is confronted abruptly with her past--in the shriveled person of her 87-year-old father. And rooted in that past is Alma's rampaging, damaging anger, which has been spreading, crowding her marriage with memories of a child ill used. As Alma pokes through family artifacts, there are flashbacks to her parents' wretched marriage and to the dirty/clean, clean/dirty montage of a day of sexual initiation and a terrifying night of incestuous incidents. Alma, scared and grieving, probes backward while battling and clinging to James. But with her father's death, an old wrong is snuffed out, and curiously, frighteningly, there is also an end to anger--that ""childlike energy"" that provided a life's momentum. Finally a new marriage compact is sealed with the determination to ""get on with the hard work of loving."" Watkins' dialogue fumes up like uncapped steam jets--nagging, funny, brutal--or sometimes, less felicitously, like random sheaves from a psychologist's briefcase. However, you'll like the contemporary family in their Providence, R.I. environs, where one has space enough and time to articulate and cosset the lost child within one's self. A bright, vigorously sustained first novel.