Seasoned novelist and children's author Fox (The Widow's Children; A Servant's Tale; the YA The Village by the Sea) reveals uncertain judgment here in a rushed, grab-bag novel that's speckled nevertheless with moments of quiet loveliness and perfection. Helen Bynum has lived all of her 23 years at home near Poughkeepsie, the last 13 of them alone with her oppressively cheerful and rather narrow-mindedly optimistic mother (whose husband left her shortly after Helen's tenth birthday, never to return). When news arrives, in the spring of 1941, of the death of that absent father, it's time for a reassessment: Helen (who leaps at the chance for freedom) is sent to New Orleans to see if her aunt Lulu, stuck at the sagging end of an acting career, won't finally decide to come and spend her waning years in Poughkeepsie. What Helen finds in New Orleans is not only a dramatic, bedraggled, and risquÃ‰ Aunt Lulu nearing the iconoclastic end of her days through acute alcoholism, but an introduction to life itself through the bohemianism of the historic old city. Other lives rapidly intertwine with her own, resulting in a plot-line that often speeds up, unfortunately, to the point of shallowness. The brilliant young poet Gerald Boyd will enchant Helen even as he drifts toward untimely death; she will fall in love with the rather cursorily drawn and silver-haired Len, sometime caretaker of Aunt Lulu; grieve over the drum-rollingly anticipated death-by-violence of the suavely intelligent but risk-takingly homosexual Claude de la Fontaine; and become intimate confidante (but with a hitch, to be discovered years later) of the boldly idealistic Nina Weir. Lyric grace and perceptive subtlety in character and setting are put in the company of often jolting efforts to set period atmosphere, hurry things along, and get to a wrap-up epilogue set in the 1960's that seems more modern-issues-topical than a real last touch at the novel's neglected heart. Gems among paste in what's not the talented Fox's best.