September 11, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

A swooning saga about a mother sleuthing to learn more about the dead daughter she barely knew, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue brings a Victorian sensibility to its postwar Chicago setting. Carrie is a dowdy housewife who defers to her domineering husband until the glamorously seedy facts of her daughter’s life provoke her to pursue her own pleasures. A handful of baroque characters minister to Carrie during her quest, conspiring to liberate her from her maternal guilt and repressive past. Purdy’s writing is delightful, if a bit overripe, but his story is a charmingly loopy collection of arbitrary subplots forced to advance Carrie’s late-life epiphanies. B

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