A short and episodic first novel that makes an effort to cut close to the bone in exploring its subject (a woman's life from troubled childhood on) but that dissipates into a familiar, pert trendiness halfway through the course. Mary Cecilia Cronstein has a socially frustrated mother who's Catholic (and drinks a lot), a father who's Jewish (and is away from home a lot). The deep tension between these dramatically and antagonistically mismatched parents leaves scars on Mary and her younger sister, both of whom are raised as Catholics. A well-intended nun introduces Mary early to the efficacy of indulgences ("You won't go to purgatory because your soul will be as clean as if it had just come out of the washing machine"), but the young girl nevertheless finds herself in an ongoing romance with suicide (she once runs in front of a car), half wishing to depart from the world in a state of grace like that of an older sister who died of a prolonged illness shortly before Mary's birth. In later life, the desire to do good continues, along with a self-destructiveness that lies just below the surface. There's a first marriage to a self-absorbed doctor who's devoted to leftist causes (and who is peculiarly--in a priest-like way?--sexless); there's Mary's effort to care for sister Martha during Martha's breakdown; and a second marriage to a man hardly less shallow than her first husband leads Mary to addiction and breakdown ("Percodan, Seconal, Stelazine, more than enough. And I took them all and then I waited"). Recovery comes slowly in the book's second half, but, unable to find a workable tone for this later material (life on the Upper West Side; children; marriage counseling; tenants' committee concerns), Chace allows it to drift into a mannered slightness that seems bent on trying to create its own significance instead of drawing on what's really there. A rich if well-mined vein at the start, tapering off into the breezily facile.