John Callahan, 30, is an ex-priest now married to social worker/tour-guide Martha (they met in Rome); the couple shares a south Chicago house--the Callahan family homestead--with another, doubly ex-religious couple: demure ex-nun Mary and her swaggering rebel-priest husband Thomas O'Rourke. And this intriguingly conceived but ineptly executed novel takes place over three days in 1969 (Just before Easter), when John's flip, bitchy mother, her current Italian gigolo in tow, comes to town for a chic-hotel visit: though ""Signora"" Callahan despises John for breaking his vows (especially with second-rate Martha), he hopes to persuade her to give him back the share of his inheritance which he renounced when vowing priestly poverty. John's own first attempt at talking to his seemingly flighty mother is a failure. But he then intuits that the Signora would respond to decent, quiet neighbor Mary in a way she never would to Martha, whom she loathes. So he asks Mary to plead his case over lunch with the Signora--and he isn't surprised when his mother implies to Mary that if John left Martha for her, he'd get all the money he wanted. Will Mary--who is, in any case, quite unhappy with her randy, narcissistic Tom (who's now eyeing both Martha and a homosexual publisher)--go along with John's eagerness to let the Signora think that the John/Mary pairing-off is indeed a reality? Well, only with great reluctance. And it then turns out that the Signora was really only testing John's capacity for betrayal--an unconvincing twist which first-novelist Charles combines with a dreadful, deus-ex-machina finale: a local black lad, a pupil from Mary's nun-teacher days, goes religiously psycho and burns down the house, with fatal results for Martha and the wee arsonist himself. Unfortunately, that's only one of the awkward, heavily thematic twists here; the characters remain mere sketches; and the prose is generally stilted, with off-key attempts at literariness. All of which is too bad--because there's a nugget of Jamesian resonance in the John/Mary/Signora situation and a flicker of something richly specific in the houseful-of-ex-Dominicans setup. Fair ideas, faulty craftsmanship.