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June 15, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Dreams of Bread

and Fire

Nancy Kricorian

Grove Press: 232 pp., $24

"Dreams of Bread and Fire" is a novel I wish I'd read in my 20s, not that it would have changed anything. But in many ways, Nancy Kricorian does for young women what James Joyce did for middle-aged men: She allows us to scramble safely amid the debris of new love, rejection, sex and identity.

Ani is a 22-year-old of average intelligence and beauty. She has choices. But her childhood is full of mysteries protected by adults or spoken of over her head in rapid Armenian. As a young adult, Ani learns that what we don't know about ourselves in our youth makes relationships all the more dangerous. What happened to my grandparents during the Armenian Genocide? Where did my father go? Why am I hopelessly attracted to men who hurt me? These are questions Ani asks herself at home in Watertown, Mass., and in Paris, where she takes time between college and graduate school to work as an au pair for a wealthy Parisian family.

It is an awkward novel, in part because of the profusion of detail that leads nowhere as Ani hunts for her identity, but it is also detail that makes Kricorian's characters sympathetic. There's more darkness than light, more fog than clarity in "Dreams of Bread and Fire." And who knows if Ani will marry the nice Armenian terrorist. It's a novel about a search, certainly not a solution.

*

The Pursuit

of Alice Thrift

Elinor Lipman

Random House: 266 pp., $23.95

Elinor Lipman reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse, and "The Pursuit of Alice Thrift" is no exception. Alice Thrift is completing her residency as a plastic surgeon. She is less than gregarious, a subject of some concern to her friends and her family. "I was not fun," she acknowledges in a series of understatements that lead Lipman's cartoonish characters down the path to real depth. When Ray, an obvious con (obvious to all except Alice), sees her professionally about his possible rhinoplasty, Alice discourages him, and so begins their relationship.

Pressured by her mother, who believes that Alice has a form of autism which deprives her daughter of all social skills, Alice commits herself in holy matrimony to her sleazebag extraordinaire: a serial fiance, the man who never carries anything smaller than a 50-dollar bill. "In his plus column," Alice muses in an attempt to persuade herself to marry him, "I could write 'entertaining and shares food.' " You get the drift of "Alice Thrift." These novels, in the tradition of "Bridget Jones" and "I Don't Know How She Does It," leave a reader rooting for goodness and innocence over sarcasm and sophistication.

*

Worried All

the Time

Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It

David Anderegg

Free Press: 228 pp., $24

Thank God. Somebody had to write this book before we raised another generation of hothouse flowers and spent more money on Prozac. Seventeen percent of American children live below the poverty line, and those are the children in true crisis, David Anderegg points out from the get-go. But from his experience as a family therapist, he is also sympathetic and finds several reasons for our increased anxiety. First, we have fewer children, which means a greater investment in each one and also a greater biological risk. Second, there is the "tabloidization of children," a media that preys on parental concerns by exaggerating the risks of even the smallest errors. Third, worried parents seek clear answers, and these, writes Anderegg, are not always the best answers for our children. Fourth, we remember our own childhoods, often too fondly, with all the "unstructured time" because "we hate our own lives, or at least our own datebooks." And finally, as a generation, we are not particularly comfortable with authority; how to use it as well as how to respond to it, even though our children require it. There is much to think about in "Worried All the Time," whether you have children or not.

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