Laurie Fox has managed to turn what could have been a harrowing and depressing autobiographical novel into a moving and funny story. Her style is brisk and readable. The bare facts are these: Lorna Person is born in 1952 to a suburban Los Angeles family. Her father works for TV, her mom is a housewife, and her sister, two years older, is mentally ill. Everyone does the best they can but there isn't much left over emotionally for Lorna. Lonnie, the older sister, can't be neatly diagnosed. She is masculine, violent, obsessed with the macabre. She is the creature from the black lagoon utterly miscast as a member of a sunny suburban family. Lonnie is sent from one special school to another but always comes back home again, wearing the family out with her rages and accusations.

Lorna excels at sweet and Lonnie excels at tough, says their mother. Lorna loves Peter Pan, ballet, books, drawing, and dolls. Imagine the scene when the two sisters play school with their dolls. Lorna wants a civilized school where her dolls line up quietly in their best clothes and draw pretty pictures. Lonnie brings in a gang of mutant monkey dolls and violent creatures to which she has added extra arms and legs and swollen heads. Lock up your daughters, bellows Lonnie, it's time to rape and plunder Dolltown. Lorna's best doll is stripped, kidnapped, and held hostage in her sister's room until Lorna promises to treat freaks with respect. Amazingly, as the family lurches along through the 1950s and 1960s, Lorna not only treats her bizarre sister with respect, but with love. Lorna understands the rules of family disengagement early on and is helped out considerably by her rich and creative inner life. In high school, she finds her niche as an actress. On one memorable occasion when Lorna is a teenager, her TV executive father takes her to a hush-hush live taping of the Dave Clark Five. It's 1966 and this British rock 'n' roll band is hot. Lorna not only watches the show but talks to one of the band members at the Hollywood Palace. Afterward she says, Daddy, the music was great. But these guys, they're just guys. I thought they'd be special. When it comes time for college, Santa Cruz is the place for the artsy Lorna. Her parents finally divorce and her sister finds some stability in a Bakersfield half-way house. Her emotional life isn't any easier, but Lorna is learning that she can cope, that she has coped, and that she isn't responsible for everyone else. And that love has been with her all along. Fox steps back from a formidable childhood to write about painful issues with clarity and wit. Baby-boomers will enjoy this book, and it will bring hope to any despairing adolescent of today. Elisabeth Sherwin lives in Davis, California, where writes Printed Matter, a weekly column on books and writers.

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