A deliberative, painstaking, yet warmly empathic first novel which explores the artifices of domestic tranquility and the fearful isolation, hostility, and anguished love beneath. Wyoming-born Julie, daughter of a defeated father and an unstable mother (tipped over the edge by the death of her deformed baby), was more than happy to escape to N.Y. and marry Tom Crane, son of an overbearing mother. After all, ""to be carried along, absolved of responsibility, was her fondest wish."" But now, in the Cranes' house in semi-rural Connecticut, Julie is totally isolated in her ""lifelong immunity"" from chaos: the neat, slick-smooth order of housewifery; stylized flirtations with Tom before sex; playing the role of benign, overseeing, distancing mother to nine-year-old Emily. (When asked by a friend if her mother loves her, Emily says, ""Maybe, but I'm not getting much out of it."") And Julie certainly is ill-equipped to deal with her husband's alcoholism or his guilt over philandering (he's seduced by the alcoholic mother of Emily's best friend). Tom is, in fact, completely unable to break through the polished surface of his wife's serenity--""If Julie didn't lead the mildest kind of life, she'd become the madwoman she feared""--and, eventually, ragged with failure and terror, he's killed in a car crash with a bar pick-up. Finally, then, an epilogue picks up mother and daughter seven years later: Julie, having freed herself in widowhood to self-reliance, now contemplates another marriage, ready to accept the possibility of love without enslavement; Emily, pre-college and ""between selves"" (having discarded a lesbian self as she's discarded others), broods over her parents' effect on her own sense of identity. With some skimpy peripheral characters (the in-laws seem shaped mainly for utility) and some amusing shadings (an eccentric neighbor, good kid talk), this is a fairly convincing view of the formica prison where ""even the best-hearted people did each other little good""--spotty, overlong, but full of dolefully acute recognitions.