The Dark Sister

by Rebecca Goldstein. Viking, $19.95. Henry James, taken seriously as a model, is a dangerous influence. Ms. Goldstein has not taken him seriously. She has pilfered his characters, his family, and his style with irreverent abandon, and tossed them into the novel being written by the protagonist of her own novel. That novel, Ms. Goldstein’s, is basically about tensions and influences among relatives — mother and daughters, sister and sister, father and everyone—but it touches on so many other topics that the reader constantly alternates between surprise and curiosity. There is a decided but ambiguous feminist element in the story. The heroine believes her theme to be “How the kinds of gifts that are celebrated in men are seen as ghastly monstrosities in women.” Her publisher, a roaringly radical feminist, orders her to “stop being so fucking reactionary.”Publishers, reviewers, and agents all draw Ms. Goldstein’s satirical fire, as do psychiatrists, spiritualists, advertisers, and a few innocent bystanders. The underlying intention of the novel is serious and the conclusion is macabre, but for most of its length the text is wittily eccentric.