It's a self-loathing Labor Day at the beach for skinny, miserable Martha, who has been picking at the scab of a freshly failed romance when she spots a gathering of women at water's edge. It's a Goddess group—latter-day devotees of an ancient matriarchal figure—and when they open their arms to her after she saves their accident-prone priestess from drowning, Martha, a 30-year-old magazine fact checker and misfit, succumbs; why not choose their faintly ridiculous company over loneliness and men who are bound to break your heart?
Turns out the women are, like Martha, damaged souls seeking asylum. Plagued by petty rivalries, they are all too human, visiting their pain and sins upon each other and their children. Prose is sharp with dialogue and detail; her satire is cutting but never cruel. By the time her story concludes—somewhat abruptly—in the Arizona desert, the author redeems the male species in the form of T-Bone, a sensitive hunk of a meat-truck driver. You might wish Prose had stayed prickly to the end; then again, she does just fine turning sentimental—and sage. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $20)