Auchincloss' latest suggests that there are indeed second acts--even third ones--for an ambitious woman in pre-liberationist America. This cautionary tale, with its anti-romantic view of the ego, adds a new, feminine perspective to familiar Auchincloss terrain--the North Shore, Wall St., and, most dramatically, the world of The Rector of Justin, his masterpiece about anew England prep school. Natica Chauncey's life has many acts, partly because she manages over the years to be ""a spy in the holy of holies of a male society."" Socially deprived by her father's financial plunge during the Crash, Natica wants to reclaim her ""natural heritage,"" and does so over time with considerable moral lapses. A quick study and a good-looking woman, this ""priestess of the life of reason"" begins her ascent on the back of her dim first husband, a prep-school chaplain who brings her within the purview of the legendary headmaster, Rufus Lockwood, a snob and autocrat whose initial intimacy with Natica is much resented by the other faculty wives. Rebuked, Natica shares her resentments with the outcast but wealthy wife of the elderly Latin master--herself a true Mdme. Merle who encourages Natica's adultery with the rich and handsome Stephen Hill, a young English teacher who hazards scandal by running off with--and marrying--his pregnant mistress. Divorce ruins the life of Natica's ex, and Natica's remarriage soon brings its own misfortunes. Stephen must leave his beloved alma mater for a dreary career on Wall St. with his ruthless capitalist cousin Tyler. Meanwhile, Natica miscarries and, having appeared to arrive, comes under the wing of her magnanimous mother-in-law, a society beauty whose attentions to her son only intensify his self-pity. Marital doubts and homosexual panic also lead to Stephen's suicide, leaving Natica with ""two failed marriages, no child, no career, and no money,"" due to the clever trust management of Hill pÃ¨re. Staked by her mother-in-law, Natica attends law school, and, chastened by experience, slowly makes her way into a fine marriage and the life she craved all along, but at no small cost. Auchincloss is less our Henry James than our Henry Adams, someone who knows his world for exactly what it is (and was). Neither nostalgist nor class traitor, Auchincloss never fails above all to delight as well as instruct.