The modest Waterhouses and the upper-class Colemans bump into one another at their connecting cemetery plots in the first days of 1901. Their young daughters–flighty Lavinia Waterhouse and sensible Maude Coleman–immediately fancy each other. In her 1999 debut, Girl With a Pearl Earring, Tracy Chevalier explored the social and religious mores of the 17th century. Here, in Falling Angels (Dutton, $24.95), she uses two very different families to reflect London society–particularly women’s conflicts and constraints–in the first decade of the 1900s. Lovely Lavinia dreams of marrying well, while her mama is happy to tend to hearth and home. Maude would prefer to study astrology. Her mummy, the beautiful, wretched Kitty, yearns for freedom–and that desire turns tragic for both families. Seen through the eyes of a dozen characters–from the Colemans’ knocked-up scullery maid to the girls’ gravedigger friend Simon–the story moves briskly. Chevalier’s ringing prose is as radiantly efficient as well-tended silver, and her details–from how to construct a prop-er grave to the wild chill of a woman’s legs bared in public for the first time–are heartbreaking.