Wide-lensed and appealingly loosey-goosey, Engel's new novel swings away from the hermetic, religious meditations of her last, The Glassy Sea. Here the social--the lives of the householders of the ""lunatic villas"" on one rehabilitated Toronto street--is everything; and the result is an offbeat success, only somewhat diminished by the fact that the book bears a resemblance--a disconcertingly strong one, at first--to Margaret Drabble's last novel, The Middle Years. Harriet Ross is a 40-ish journalist scratching out a living to feed and clothe and deflect the adolescent energies of six kids. Some are biologically hers (fathered by her dead husband); some were his in wardship only; some are simply relatives who relate better to the capacious Harriet than to their own parents. And also on the premises is Mrs. Saxe, an old lady from England who arrives unbidden in Harriet's life (like so many others) and stays in the book as a sort of humorously silent sounding-board for the constant noise of sympathetic chaos that issues from Harriet's demesne. True, there are only dibs and dashes of plot here: Harriet's affair with neighbor Vinnie, whose wheelchair-bound wife Sylvia raises birds (which finally, in a sort of vengeance, give Harriet a case of parrot fever); a custody case; Mrs. Saxe's startling metamorphosis into a long-distance bicycle racer in tandem with Harriet's eldest son, Mick. But, as in the Drabble, tone is what this novel is all about: the sunniness of adulthood on a shoestring. All in all, it's a book that pushes at its stray locks with the back of a hand and blows determined air through its lips: nothing too heavy or loaded with import, but a beguiling display of virtuoso optimism from a writer who is proving remarkably tactile of approach. . . and delightfully unpredictable.