Stowe (Not the End of the World, 1992) again explores family dysfunction, but this smart, carefully written second novel is much more than its subject: It's brittle and sharp, poignant and tough- minded, a balancing act that takes a breathtaking aesthetic risk. Stowe's narrator, Ginger Moore, is also much more than her rÇsumÇ: a middle-aged divorced New Yorker who writes biographies of obscure female figures in English literature whose talents went unnoticed or unfulfilled. For all of her relentless self-criticism, and her reflexive sarcasm, she's no whiner, partly because she's a duty-bound midwestern WASP. Her Christmas trip to Michigan--a pilgrimage that lends the book structure--also stirs up various revelations about family resentments and secrets. Her mother, Virginia, a former southern belle, now wallows in desperation and need, and an ``insatiable appetite for vodka'' that developed after the accidental death of her third child. Ginger's 41-year old brother, Cease (for Cecil), is bitter, sardonic, consumed by his hatred for his mother, secretly blaming himself for both his brother's death and his mother's retreat into booze. Meanwhile, Cecil Sr., a wealthy retired lawyer, enjoys his willed oblivion-- his gentle jokes and his everyday routines. Admittedly ``intense,'' Ginger approaches the holidays with customary dread--this is a family who watches Psycho on Christmas Eve, after all. What makes the novel so compelling are the voices distilled through Ginger's consciousness: her smart-mouthed boyfriend, a hot young Dennis Leary-like comic; her Panel of Judges, a superego drawn from literary history; and her own overwrought intelligence. She scrutinizes the world, and her family history, with Jamesian intensity only to discover its transparency, which also makes her suspicious of all the pop insights that might otherwise define (and neatly dismiss) this screwed-up brood. Further proof that art often emerges from the most ordinary materials, transformed by style, humor, and grace.