In her early fiction, Oates often displayed a sharp talent for the texture and rhythm of psychological obsession--but this study of the feverish friendship between two women is unconvincing, thin and artificial, from start to finish. The novel is presented from the viewpoint of Monica Jensen, a 30-ish, fair, rather repressed sort who takes a teaching job at a private boys' school in rural Pennsylvania--largely in order to recover from her recent bad-marriage, which has left physical scars (an abortion, a small facial scar from a fight) as well as emotional ones. But soon Monica meets her temperamental opposite: dark, artistic, sensual, hedonistic Sheila Trask, 42--a semi-famous painter, widow of a famous sculptor, a local landowner. And immediately Monica feels,"the tug of a powerful attraction," elated when Sheila seems to take an interest in her: "Monica knew secretly that her capacity for love--for love and what is meant by 'passion'--was deficient set beside Sheila Trask's". . . while Sheila seems equally awed by Monica's good-natured, competent, "blond optimism." The women begin talking together regularly; Monica dotes on Sheila's visits, gawks over Sheila's artistic talent; she even tags along when Sheila dons working-class disguise to engage in bar-and-grill flirtations with truckers. (The novel catches fire briefly here.) The friendship quickly sours, however--as the other side of Sheila's artistic soul emerges: combative, insecure, alcoholic, suicidal. Monica breaks away, reenters the safe, superficial world she lived in before. But something is missing--and when a needy Sheila makes a bid to rekindle the relationship, Monica eagerly agrees, but on new terms. "Now she would be cautious--she would be in control," as Monica becomes Sheila's indispensable confidant/helpmeet and the friendship edges toward open eroticism. . . but then plunges Monica into a nightmare of rape, illness, and self-exposure. Neither of the women here is credibly drawn; nor are they persuasive as polar "types." And Oates' prose belabors each point repetitiously--making this often read like a heavily padded short story. Mildly intriguing at the start, then increasingly murky and tiresome.