Sex vs. art, faith vs. science, city vs. suburbs--those are just a few of the tensions darting through Howard's new small-scale, large-minded novel: another family-life mosaic that doesn't quite add up . . . but strikes spark after spark as it leaps along unpredictably. In 1971 youngish widow Maude Dowd (sometimes the narrator, sometimes not) lives in Connecticut with matronly teenage daughter Elizabeth. She dutifully visits her senile, dying mother--cared for by an equally aged (but earthily vibrant) nurse. She entertains crude sex-fantasies about gift-shop-owner Paul Deems--fantasies that will become reality (till crass, cowardly Paul sneaks off to Latin America with his invalid wife, a would-be do-gooder). And, above all, she spies on her neighbors, the Le Deux sisters: exotic, fat tramp Mattie (she of the ""HONK IF YOU HAD ANY LAST NIGHT"" bumper sticker) and thin poet Jane, who soon dies--as do both Mother and the nurse. Enough material for a novel? For most writers--more than enough. But Howard packs all these resonant situations into about 50 pages. And then, suddenly, it's ten years later: Maude has remarried (Jewish social/science pundit Bert Lasser); she's gotten a Ph.D., practices psychotherapy, lives on N.Y.'s Upper We. st Side; daughter Elizabeth, abandoning a promising opera career, has married dull, virile Greek-American lawyer Gus (someone just like her dead father). So now, though the miseries of '71 are long gone (the loneliness, the dying mother), there are different ones that come with this apparently better territory: the death of Maude's most pathetic patient (an utterly unloved little boy); husband Bert's distress over his long-estranged son (an effete clergyman); or the simple physical humiliations of aging. (Maude has a small growth removed from her eyelid--and fancies herself a ""tough old dame"" in her stoic reaction.) But, throughout, Howard does more than merely gather together the poignant, stumbling-block moments of remade lives. She constantly adds in the thorny complicating factor of perception: Mande's eye bandage is surely a symbol of her half-blindedness--and seemingly sound judgments are always quickly spun around. Is Bert's son really the fool Bert sees? Is son-in-law Gus deserving of Maude's scorn? And are sex and art truly in opposition? (Perhaps not--since Elizabeth rediscovers her voice . . . after discovering that fat tramp Mattie Le Deux was the one who actually wrote the poetry attributed to her wraithlike sister.) Complex matters, in artful pseudo-disarray--But Howard maintains astonishing control while changing tones, tenses, and viewpoints; and even if only half of the thematic interplay here firmly registers, serious-fiction readers will not want to miss this tough, elegant, often-breathtaking skitter through domestic rearrangements and constant inner shiftings.