Benita Alvarez-Shipton lives in Alburqueque with her abusive, alcoholic husband. All her life she encouraged her children to seek an education, so they could avoid the mistakes she's made - early pregnancy, dead-end marriage, and few prospects. With daughter Angelica safely out of state at college, and son Carlos (who seems to be all too like his father) out of state, Benita finally has the space to start thinking about herself. She's been working in a bookshop for the last few years, which she's enjoyed, but yet another slap on the wrist for her husband (this time after killing someone when driving while drunk and disqualified) has been the last straw. Bert might be sentenced to house arrest, but that makes Benita his jailer as well as his only visible means of support.
While walking outside thinking, Benita is approached by two aliens, who give her money and a mysterious box that changes colour when it's held. Chiddy and Vess ask Benita to take the box to the American authorities, where it will convince them that earth is being considered for membership in an intergalactic community.
When Benita returns home she's confronted by an enraged and drunken Bert, who steals her car and - defying the judge - leaves. The final straw laid, Benita heads to Washington to meet her state senator, a decision that transforms not only her life but that of everyone on the planet.
As always, Tepper manages to blend ecology, feminism and fantasy into an absorbing narrative that is creative, imaginative and thought-provoking; she has the admirable ability to make the reader see things in their own society that were previously unseen and unquestioned, and to convey a message without dogma or didactism.
Chiddy and Vess are Pistach, a peaceful race where social roles are determined at adolescence, after an exhaustive process that can take a couple of years of role-playing and assessment - there are a number of genders and orders of pronoun, and one's role is set for life. We learn about the Pistach from intermittent extracts from Chiddy's journal, written for Benita. Unlike lesser writers, Tepper has created a race that has its own issues, blindnesses, and which is based on an orthodoxy comparable to our notions of fundamentalism.
There was the potential for Benita to turn into a Mary-Sue-like character, and she's certainly the most likable and sensible portrayal in the novel, but she has her own flaws. One thing I particularly liked was the way Tepper not only justified her role (so often I can't see why the gods/aliens etc would pick the protagonist to play a central role), but also (unusual for an American writer) why first contact occurs in the US rather than another country.
I'm overseas at the moment, and decided to bring with me only books I was prepared to leave behind. However, I was so taken with The Fresco (which is a real thing, a symbol and an allegory in the novel) that I have to bring it home with me. This is a near-perfect novel. - Alex