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History Lesson for Girls A Novel Aurelie Sheehan Viking: 354 pp., $23.95

July 16, 2006|Marion Winik | NPR commentator Marion Winik is the author of "Above Us Only Sky" and "First Comes Love."

TWELVE years after Rick Moody's "The Ice Storm" comes another morality tale set in suburban Connecticut in the 1970s, another look at the consequences of adult self-indulgence and confusion for the teenagers in their care. Aurelie Sheehan's "History Lesson for Girls" begins two years after the events depicted in "The Ice Storm" and a few towns away, but not much has changed. The marijuana smoke still wafts from the open windows; the parents still sneak out of the wrong bedrooms when nobody's looking. This time, the child betrayed is a gentle, watchful eighth-grader named Alison Glass. Her mother is a painter, her father a poet, and the family of three, plus Alison's black-and-white horse, Jazz, has just moved to "the fancy town of Weston from maligned and honorable Norwalk."

The adult Glasses hope this move will be good for their daughter, but the rigid brace Alison wears for her scoliosis makes her look like a "ruined circus giraffe" and causes her to be immediately labeled a freak by her peers at Weston Middle School. Her floppy pink corduroy hat and yellow clogs are also less well received than they were at the Montessori Schoolhouse. There is one notable exception to Alison's chilly welcome. Kate Hamilton, slim and straight, a "sassy person with secret cigarettes," rides up into her driveway one morning on a gray Arabian named Peach. "I noticed you have a horse," Kate says.

Jazz and Peach lead their mistresses into an intense, transformative friendship of the kind only 13-year-old girls can have, recollected here by the adult Alison, who, decades later, has become a veterinarian. Kate shows Alison the best places to ride, she teaches her to smoke, she defends her from the cruel boys at school as well as from her own junior cheerleader friends. When their history teacher assigns their class a creative project -- the bicentennial is around the corner -- the two collaborate on a chronicle of the adventures of the fictional Sarah Beckingworth, a "lost heroine" from Revolutionary-era Weston. This whimsically imagined narrative appears in fragments between the chapters of the main story, a relic of the girls' shared language and private world.

Sarah's parents are massacred by Indians in an early chapter; her creators are not so lucky. Their parents will mess up their lives for the rest of the book.

Although Alison at first can't figure out why the ultra-cool Kate takes such an interest in her, she soon learns that life at the Hamiltons' Frank Lloyd Wright-style home is difficult and unstable. Kate's father, Tut, is a dubious, threatening figure: a pot-smoking, white-linen-wearing pseudo guru who has raked in mountains of cash from his book, "Pyramid Love," and the "playshops" he teaches based on its gospel of material acquisition. Kate's leggy, submissive mother, Shana, seems to be in the same intoxicated haze she was in when she married Tut at 18. The family also has an older boy, the sullen, horny Mick, and, for comic relief, a herd of yapping Basenji dogs named after Egyptian gods: Anubis, Shu, Geb, Nut, Isis, Osiris, Hapi, Muts I and II and Horus. Also appearing to lighten things up are the eyelashes of Tut's personal assistant, Renee, who believes one need remove one's mascara only when it gets too thick to apply the new day's coat.

While most of Sheehan's characters are, like Moody's in "The Ice Storm," more weak than venal, she has an actual villain in Tut Hamilton. This is a character who would bring disaster on his family in any decade, whose mythic crimes feed on the compromised moral climate of his era but far exceed its influence. This is not a basically decent guy who falls victim to the zeitgeist but a shyster who wreaks psychic and physical violence on those in his care.

As his foil stands Alison's poet father, Chris, a good man and good writer who is as ineffectual as Tut is commanding. With sarcasm his only weapon, Chris Glass is helpless against the infatuations of his wife, Clare: infatuations with a shade of blue called Prussian Wildflower, with Weston's silly "Women of History" club, with the yoga teachers and faith healers she hopes will heal Alison's spine and, finally, with the sham shaman himself. By the time Chris finally steps out of character and strikes back, it is too late. Yet even as she looks back decades later, Alison can't help but relish his one, slightly pathetic moment of heroism.

The narrator is extraordinarily gentle in her portrayal of Clare, a former ballet dancer with long blond hair, huge purple sunglasses, pointy red shoes from Afghanistan and a studio full of paintings with names such as "Necessity #2." Clare grasps at every straw she can find in her determination to help her daughter avoid brutal back surgery, and as much as Alison despises kale, kelp, acupuncture, Movement for Life classes and the PowerUpForHealth! "dreadful quasi-fermented liquid supplement," she is too desperate not to go along.

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