Oates' "most personal" novel, as her publisher calls it, is also her smallest in scale. When we meet Marya Knauer, the novel's lean and secretive young heroine, she is an 8-year-old abandoned child in a squalid outpost of upstate New York; her father, a miner, has been murdered in a labor dispute and her mother, an alcoholic of whom Marya's memories are mostly cruel, has disappeared or been jailed. Living with the family of a kind but inattentive aunt and uncle, Marya fashions an identity that will carry her through ostracism, loneliness and, later, the determined pursuit of academic and literary honors: the identity of a gifted outsider. Unfortunately, Oates has chosen to render Marya's emotional development through a series of murky and flimsily connected vignettes, each having to do with a crucial character Marya encounters as she grows: an eccentric highschool teacher who encourages her to compete for a college scholarship and to write, and then succumbs to a nervous breakdown; a Roman Catholic priest who teaches her something about faith before he dies; a celebrated college professor who becomes her lover and dies; the editor of a literary journal who publishes her work, introduces her to an international literary coterie, and also dies. By employing characters as moody emotional object-lessons and then abrubtly jettisoning them, Oates may intend to suggest something about the difficulties of becoming a self-made woman or the jerkiness of modern life, but the result is contrived and unsatisfying: Most of the characters in this overwritten novel, including Marya, take on the otherwordly air of shadows stalking Oates' usual preoccupations: nihilism, feminism, death. In the end, when Marya, now 35, feels secure enough in her identity to contact her lost mother, the reader admires the novel's effort at closure and wants to care--but doesn't.