``You skitter over the surface of things. Your feelings have no substance,'' remarks a character in Solwitz's first collection. Unfortunately, it's a judgment that could also apply to this sometimes affecting but ultimately disappointing compilation. Social and political contradictions, the transcendence of personal histories, and hierarchies of victimhood are the themes explored here, mainly by women in their 30s who feel immobilized by a conviction that everyone else is more certain about things than they themselves are. Each story turns on a startling event that yanks the protagonist out of confused moral relativism. In ``Editing,'' a filmmaker considers a second marriage while reminiscing about her first. A memory of a pilgrimage for enlightenment is compromised by a highly prejudicial take on Indian life, and burdened by a weirdly symbolic attack on a sacred icon. ``If You Step on a Crack'' evokes the feel of Chicago's Wrigleyville neighborhood on game day, complete with rude young men urinating in alleys. When a woman who is preoccupied with an impending biopsy lashes out at an unstable, violent man, he rams her house with his car, inspiring a romantic reconciliation between her and her emotionally distant husband. ``Polio,'' the only tale that hasn't appeared previously in literary magazines, powerfully depicts the quietly heartbreaking protectiveness familiar to parents of a slow learner. But when the family undertakes a camping trip with friends who have a quick-witted child, Solwitz is so determined to make and underline a point about rising to the occasion that she has the kids' tent get set on fire. Though sometimes richly characterized, the stories are too often undermined by an obsession with competitive suffering. A rape victim who struggles with the complicated aftermath in ``Mercy'' begrudges her husband's Buddhist friend, who had a much worse rape experience but let it ``pass through without touching her.'' An admirably ambitious collection that's held back by its own earnestness from reaching the larger themes waiting beneath the surface.