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The whole world in front of her

A debut novel about growing up when the adults around you still haven't

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Growing up is hard - particularly in a novel. For every well-drawn Huck Finn and Scout Finch, a thousand unfortunate children limp through the forest of American fiction, misshapen characters oozing adult sentimentality or spouting artificial insights.

"The Center of Everything," a debut novel by Laura Moriarty, seems at first destined to join the ranks of the rank. The narrator, 10-year-old Evelyn Bucknow, lives with her welfare mother in a small Midwestern town where she learns hard lessons about love and loss.

Ordinarily, I would rather live in a small Midwestern town with love or loss than read a novel about a 10-year-old girl doing so, but Moriarty pulls it off.

The secret to her success is a pitch-perfect voice and unfailing restraint. She's so good at portraying the charming mixture of egotism and insecurity, humility and grandiosity that marks adolescence.

Little Evelyn is a plain, observant girl whose deadpan humor never gets deep fat-fried with green tomatoes à la Fannie Flagg. The decrepit apartment complex that Moriarty creates contains the usual catalog of domestic ills associated with chronic unemployment and substance abuse, but it demonstrates the tenuous stability of such places more than the melodramatic tragedy we see on TV.

Like any child, Evelyn confronts a world of baffling contradictions, competing claims for her allegiance and affection, from which she knows instinctively she must construct a moral code.

By all accounts, her mother has done everything wrong. Snobby neighbors make crude comments about the married man who drops by with groceries. On television, Ronald Reagan is tired of welfare queens "having babies without husbands and driving around in Cadillacs while everybody else has to work hard."

"We don't have a Cadillac. Yet," Evelyn observes nervously.

At school, sympathetic teachers try to impress upon her the importance of not following her mother's footsteps. Her conservative grandparents are a constant source of disapproval, determined to save poor Evelyn from her mother's shameful dissipation.

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