Although, as in Who Was Sylvia? (1983), Gardiner never quite succeeds in setting her more inventive characters and situations in appropriate pace and tone, still there's a certain spiny vigor in her rendering of English lower-middle-class glooms and desperate aspirations. Here is the odyssey of a woman whose search for something--and someone--leads her back to a well-trodden path she had hoped to escape, and a love ""proper and sensible.""Born in 1900 in a run-down section of London, Cassie is the daughter of upwardly aspiring Jessica and of Gilbert, a vague being whose grasp of reality seeps away over the years, until he spends all of Cassie's legacy (intended for her education) while he secretly writes the adventures of ""Captain Shovel"" (it never occurs to him to write for money). Both parents die of the flu, and penniless Cassie, who's been accepted at Cambridge, is sent to live with fairly wealthy Uncle Harold, who's not going to put up with any college nonsense and shunts her to Liverpool's Gathercole Commercial Academy. Furious and frustrated, Cassie weathers on in Uncle Harold's house with his wife ""Babs,"" who wants them to be ""tremendous chums."" Babs is a caricature who entertains young men. This unlikely pair have produced two sons and a retarded daughter, Mona, institutionalized. Cassie's attempt to rescue Mona is the first of her failures. Finally, she breaks noisily with Babs and company while throwing Harold-bought finery ""ballooning"" into a lake. For Cassie is after success and love. Although teaching at the Academy under the wise and cunning Emilia and her gentle, longtime lover Wilfred had been satisfying for a time, she will fall in love, more or less, with Communist Arnold--and then there'll be a screaming parting during a March on London. There's one last search for ""an object of desire"" in Austria, before she returns to Gathercole in the aftermath of tragedy, all passion spent. Now in the afternoon of her life, ""mature as Lancashire cheese,"" she'll ""gerron with it.""Ripe with intermittent lacings of the tarty diction of Lime Street, and with the grit and grub of the old city, a spiky tale of a Liverpudlian Alice Adams who ""settles.