A debut novel by Irvine--the English author of two memoirs (Castaway, 1984; Runaway, 1987)--provides vividly authentic and moving portraits of a quartet of outsiders. Irvine, a grade-school dropout, first came into the public eye with her true account of spending a year on an uninhabited island with a stranger after answering a want ad for a ""wife."" Her memoirs revealed a gift for gritty, detailed, and compelling prose, but failed when she tried to probe motivation--strengths and weaknesses also apparent in her first fiction. Protagonist Julie Barton, traumatized by her parents' divorce, lives a painfully austere, celibate, and solitary life after a period of unsatisfying promiscuity. Her only human contacts are with Ann, the elderly shut-in to whom she pays charity visits, and with Daley, her sometime employer, a secretly lecherous depressive on the downward slide to serious mental disturbance. When ex-con Hodge falls through her skylight on Christmas night while attempting a burglary, Julie engages him in conversation instead of calling the police. Hodge, a loner, started painting as therapy and now obsessively works on female nudes. Julie soon becomes his model and lover until frightened off by his bizarre intensity. Ann, Daley, and Hodge are all connected through Julie and face tragic fates; portrayed with remarkably thorough detail and insight, all emerge as sympathetic and convincing. Only Julie--with her constant analysis of behavior, her musings on fantasy images and how people use one another--too often breaks the novel's spell. Strange and compassionate; intriguing but flawed.