JOE JONES by Anne Lamott (North Point: $15.50). The protagonist of this venturesome and admirable novel is Louise, "sexy and sweet, somewhere on the cusp between curvaceous and fat." She is the cook at a Sausalito cafe belonging to Jessie, a 79-year-old dowager and her homosexual grandson, Willie ("I thought he just had good posture"). The eponymous Joe Jones, who has lived with Louise for five years, has been banished for infidelities but aches to return. As Louise fights her longings to take him back, clinging to her friendship with Willie and a wiry philosophy for support, Eva Dean, tragically doomed by a rare disease, plummets into their lives. Fecund with drama, lyrically sweet, "Joe Jones" reveals the needs and existential lonelinesses of interesting characters who often have nothing left but their vulnerability. Not all scenes deliver the dramatic goods, but seem to trail off, more than once creating the sense that some text was lost. Nor do all the effects work: Anne Lamott needs to be rationed in her use of italics and all-capital-letter words for emphasis. Shortened by about one-eighth of its present length, "Joe Jones" would be more focused and enduring.