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Life goes on

A Crooked Kind of Perfect A Novel ;Linda Urban ;Harcourt: 214 pp., $16

August 26, 2007|Susan Carpenter

Life is messy. Most of the time, it just doesn't go the way we'd like, which is OK. The way things happen unexpectedly just takes some getting used to.

That's the lesson for Zoe Elias, the 10-year-old protagonist of Linda Urban's warm and humorous debut novel for middle-school readers, "A Crooked Kind of Perfect."

Zoe wants to play piano. She really wants to play. She idolizes the late great Russian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, fantasizes about being a child prodigy and dreams of headlining at Carnegie Hall.

Instead, she plays the organ: a "wood-grained, vinyl-seated, wheeze-bag" that her well-intentioned but socially phobic and easily swayed father was talked into buying at the Rewind Used Music store.

Zoe doesn't want to play organ, and her upcoming recital at the Perform-O-Rama in Michigan's Birch Valley Hotel and Conference Center is a far cry from Manhattan's center stage. But that's exactly how it should be. Zoe just doesn't realize it yet.

Told from Zoe's point of view, in ultra-short chapters that range from a single sentence to a handful of pages, "A Crooked Kind of Perfect" doesn't flow so much as bounce from scene to scene as it fills in details of her daily life with seemingly disconnected anecdotes.

Zoe's mom is a workaholic with a high-powered job as state controller. Her dad is jobless and enrolled in an endless string of home-study courses from Living Room University. Her best friend has ditched her for a schoolmate who shares an interest in lip gloss. And there are boys to contend with.

In less skilled hands, this skipping merrily from scene to scene could make the book feel disjointed, but Urban starts each chapter with such a punchy first line so that the reader is immediately drawn in. The chapter titled "432," for example, begins: "We have 432 rolls of toilet paper in our basement. Four hundred and thirty-two. This is enough to last until I'm out of high school." Two pages (or one chapter) later, we're introduced to her Perfectone D-60 organ. In five more pages, we're dropped into her first organ lesson with instructor Mabelline Person, whose name, Zoe points out, isn't pronounced like it's spelled but as "Per-saaahn."

The disjointed scenes don't seem to hang together at first, but eventually, they form a plot that's more emotionally resonant than it initially appeared, considering the book's light tone. Zoe may be funny, but she doesn't use her humor as a shield; it's more of a tempering mechanism for coping with difficult situations and feelings.

As Zoe readies herself for a musical competition, all the main characters are forced to confront their particular issues -- her mom and her workaholism, her dad and his agoraphobia and Zoe's own fears and feelings of inadequacy.

So, no, life doesn't go exactly the way we'd like. But as Zoe finds out, that makes for a more interesting and enriching experience. It's a crooked kind of perfect -- and that's even better.

--

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Susan Carpenter is a Times staff writer.

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