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Young women who raise their parents

PHOTO: 1) FLEUR DE LEIGH'S LIFE OF CRIME By Diane Leslie Simon & Schuster 301 pp., $23

THE PROFESSOR OF LIGHT By Marina Budhos G.P. Putnam's Sons 254 pp., $23.95

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Diane Leslie's first novel seems to have rung a bell - or many bells - in the author's native Los Angeles, where Fleur de Leigh's Life of Crime recently shot up to No. 1 on the local bestseller list. This may have something to do with its subject matter: a poor little rich girl utterly neglected by her pathologically self-involved show-biz parents. It may also have something to do with the author's crisp, clear prose style, and the way in which she mingles wry comedy and genuine pathos in delineating the plight of her eponymous heroine.

Fleur de Leigh is the daughter of Charmian Leigh, a former movie star turned radio actress, and Maurice Leigh, the producer of a television game show, "Sink or Get Rich," in which hapless contestants who give wrong answers are deluged with water.

Maurice is a genuinely heartless man. Charmian, as her name suggests, has more in the way of superficial charm, but is just as self-centered. Charmian plays a detective on a radio show: "Our writers - the dimwits - gave me a one hundred sixty-five IQ when actually mine is one eighty. Like Einstein," she boasts. "I had lunch, you know, with Einstein before he died. He said he wished he had my beauty." Modesty is not her strong suit.

Fleur grows up on a posh Beverly Hills estate, where her only friends are the servants, most of whom don't last very long with such demanding employers. While Fleur's "mommie dearest" is no child-beater, she gives new meaning to the word "neglect," and when it comes to vanity, she would give Narcissus a run for his money.

With an appealingly wide-eyed, tongue-in-cheek innocence, Fleur relates her surprising adventures between the ages of 10 and 12 in the late 1950s: the classic era of glamour, gloss, and artifice.

Meggie Singh, the adolescent heroine of Marina Budhos's haunting and lyrical second novel, The Professor of Light, has a father she truly worships. Warren Singh is a brilliant man, a professor of philosophy whose fresh approach to his subject charms colleagues and students alike. He has come a long way from his origins in the Caribbean nation of Guyana, the son of a poor family who originally came there from India. Professor Singh's restless intelligence and diligent study brought him to the US, where he married a Jewish American woman and pursued a career in academe.

The professor's great goal is to write a book that will explain one of the major paradoxes of modern physics: how light can have the properties of both wave and particle.

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Each summer, the Singhs visit England, where Warren's sister Inez now lives, married to a steady, unassuming Englishman who runs a china shop. In this setting, the underlying strains and confusions of the Singhs' complex cultural heritage have a way of rising to the surface. "I'd come to see," Meggie notes, "that my father's search into light grew more intense in the summer because who we were - a funny, in-between family, Indian Caribbean, American, English - was clearer during the[se] months.... My father's book was both a wish to understand us and an inquiry into particle and wave. And why not? Weren't we particle and wave, the stream of old stories passing through?"

Meggie's story is interspersed with a series of lyrical, dream-like visions that symbolize and illuminate aspects of her family's predicament, inhabiting an "in-between" realm where Indian myths, Caribbean superstitions, and Western values all converge. Interweaving these elements with grace and delicacy, Budhos explores the realms of vision, fantasy, and illogic without losing touch with reality.

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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