he obvious thing to say about this accomplished first novel is that the author is the daughter of poet Rose Styron and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner, Sophie's Choice). To leave it at that would be to sell a fine talent short. Alexandra Styron has a style uniquely her own and a flair for getting inside her characters that makes this work of fiction read as smoothly as an autobiography.

Adelaide Kane Abraham, known as Addy, was a child when Louise, the new babysitter from the Caribbean, came into her life. Louise stepped into a family that had earned the right to be called eccentric, if not downright dysfunctional. The shaky menage consisted of Professor Henry Abraham, who in his glory days had been hailed as a philosopher, peacenik and "one seriously hep cat"; his wife, still called "Baby," whose inherited wealth kept the household afloat; and young Addy, largely disregarded in the warfare that defined her parents' relationship. If she refused to comb her hair or wear recently laundered clothing, those small, stubborn acts of rebellion gave her a tiny bit of control over a world that seemed out of control.

Addy's parents sipped cocktails and squabbled, pouted and pontificated. The kids at school bestowed the nickname Rat Girl on Addy, but Louise opened her heart to this strange white child and gave her a new image of herself: "Addy, yah a fine girl; don't yah listen to dem old prissy chilren, because yah gonna grow and be de best, yah hearing me?" The hungry heart of a lonely child devoured this warmth and optimism and called it love.

That Louise had a family of her own in St. Clair two sons, a host of relatives, a way of life which she missed desperately and a painful sorrow that had driven her away from home never occurred to Addy. Not until her unexpected and mysterious death do the hidden parts of Louise's life fall into place. By then Addy is a grown but still troubled woman, and her impulsive journey to St. Clair to attend Louise's funeral brings her face to face with the truth about Louise's life and in the process, Addy's own life realigns itself in a hopeful new direction. All the Finest Girls is a virtuoso performance, a remarkably perceptive and finely tuned story that addresses the tough questions of love, loss and redemption with deadly accuracy tempered by gentle humor.

Mary Garrett reads and writes in Middle Tennessee.

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