"Missed Connections" is a novel of small episodes, of precise sentences, of unusual clarity. It is a quiet novel that never builds to a crescendo, but continues throughout in the same understated vein. It is a novel of the working class, but is nowhere--as such novels can be--crude or sordid. It is a novel about the entanglements of family and the strange separateness of each individual.

It concerns three moments in a woman's life, moments which seem both oddly distinct and fatefully interconnected. It is a novel which, finally, traces a terribly sad fate for its protagonist, but in which even the most sympathetic reader is hard-pressed to find an alternative.

The narrative focuses on Christine Scarpa, the second child and oldest daughter of an Italian family in a Boston suburb. Her father is a resigned, defeated man, and her mother rules the roost; it is Ma who bought their house with an inheritance and she who choreographs the actions of her family with calculated bursts of emotion. Martin, the oldest son, is headed toward the priesthood; Anna, a younger sister, is a mysterious child who suffers from asthma and for whom Christine is the primary guardian.

"The Nunnery Grounds"--the novel's first section--traces Christine's relationship with Sandy Cole, who works in a body shop near her house. He is associated in the minds of the Scarpa family with a local clan named Rimpole, which the Scarpas regard as thuggish and shiftless.

In fact, Sandy is a sensitive young man who is haunted by hatred for his father and who seems to be drawn toward Christine largely because of her tightly knit family.. Almost as soon as Sandy and Christine meet, he takes it for granted that they have a future together, and though their sexual relationship proceeds gracefully and with equal interest on both sides, it is not just sexually that he wants to know her.

Christine, however, is distracted by her concern for Anna, and also seems to feel that marriage to Sandy would tie her to the neighborhood and to the Rimpoles, whom she can never feel quite right about. She ends their relationship because she is vaguely stifled in it, and because she seems to feel she was meant for something better.

In the novel's second section, "Lime Street," Christine seems to have found it; she takes a job in an art gallery owned by a woman named Charlotte Grayling, who wants Christine not only as a secretary but as a photographic model. It is not long before Charlotte has begun to change Christine's appearance, to educate her, to elevate her.

Also on the scene is the gallery owner's half-brother, Braden Smith, an apparently idle man who collects and sells antique glass; before long Christine has moved into the Lime Street apartment that is kept by Braden and sometimes occupied by both him and Charlotte. The collector admires Christine and understands much about her; he becomes her first real lover. Christine is fulfilled, but eventually uncovers things that lead her to decide against marriage with Braden.

In the novel's third section, "The End of the Avenue," Christine is a woman stranded between two worlds. At 26, she is considered practically an old maid by her Italian family, and she loses her job when Charlotte sells the gallery. Most strangely, Sandy has married Anna, as if what he has wanted all along is to become a part of that family that is so suspicious of him.

The third section focuses on what suddenly seems the bizarre relationship between the two sisters when Christine gives up her friendships with men, moves back to the old house and sees that Sandy and Anna do too.

The ending of "Missed Connections," is intentionally inconclusive. Christine cannot stay with her family, but has severed connections elsewhere. Not yet 30, she is a woman whose life is at a dead end.

Yet one hardly would have advised her to live it differently. It does seem marriage to Sandy Cole would have been settling for a skimpy, limited life, especially considering the rich experience that was to follow. One would not have advised her to marry Braden Smith either; there was a certain desperation to his courtship, as if he felt middle age breathing down his neck, and the elegant Charlotte Grayling did seem to have a real capacity for evil.

"Missed Connections" thus emerges from a simple beginning to become a novel of considerable complexity. Elaine Ford seems to be saying that the families that dominate our lives do so partly because we want them to, because we hesitate to make connections elsewhere. What is perhaps most impressive about this novel is the way its small parts add up to a whole. Each episode is understated, but in their accretion they wield an enormous power. The result is a fully rounded portrait that is both terribly clear and terribly sad.