From Publishers Weekly
In her debut novel, This American Life
contributor O'Neill offers a narrator, Baby, coming of age in Montreal just before her 12th birthday. Her mother is long dead. Her father, Jules, is a junkie who shuttles her from crumbling hotels to rotting apartments, his short-term work or moneymaking schemes always undermined by his rage and paranoia. Baby tries to screen out the bad parts by hanging out at the community center and in other kids' apartments, by focusing on school when she can and by taking mushrooms and the like. (She finds sex mostly painful.) Stints in foster care, family services and juvenile detention ("nostalgia could kill you there") usually end in Jules's return and his increasingly erratic behavior. Baby's intelligence and self-awareness can't protect her from parental and kid-on-kid violence, or from the seductive power of being desired by Alphonse, a charismatic predator, on the one hand, and by Xavier, an idealistic classmate, on the other. When her lives collide, Baby faces choices she is not equipped to make. O'Neill's vivid prose owes a debt to Donna Tartt's The Little Friend
; the plot has a staccato feel that's appropriate but that doesn't coalesce. Baby's precocious introspection, however, feels pitch perfect, and the book's final pages are tear-jerkingly effective. (Oct.)
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Baby's mother is dead; her hapless father is a heroin addict; home is a series of tiny, increasingly squalid apartments in Montreal's seedier precincts; her boyfriend is a pimp; and--about the time she turns 13--she becomes a prostitute. Not exactly the stuff of Sweet Valley High--more like the worst of the teen problem novels of the 1970s--on steroids! And, yet, first-time-author O'Neill somehow infuses her troubling story with a kind of heartbreaking innocence, thanks to her central conceit that Baby, her father (who was only 15 when she was born), and her friends are only pretending to be criminals to get by. The question of whether they will get by adds an element of suspense to this sad, almost wistful story, which occasionally strays dangerously close to sentimentality. O'Neill is a wonderful stylist, though, and the voice she has created for Baby is original and altogether captivating. Michael CartCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved