All he wanted for Christmas was a glass-wax stencil kit. Not so much for a young boy to ask, even in 1953. What he got (and gave) for Christmas was a family tragedy, too terrible for words, which haunted him and those he loved for the rest of their lives. Such events can make or break a family, and Anthony's Italian-American clan in the Bronx is not the world's strongest. His parents' marriage is passionate but tenuous; his aunt is a bit flighty; his twin cousins are really annoying; and his uncle is a jailbird. The ties fray and stretch, but in some form they hold in the end. The story is told in six chapters, each set later in time. Ranging from the memories of a child to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a dying septuagenarian, the novel examines the cumulative history of forced coping with pain that will never entirely disappear. Ursula Hegi has written nine previous books, one of which, Stones from the River, was an Oprah Book Club pick. She does not specialize in flash or shock, but rather in a steady searching-out of the variables of what it is to be human and wounded, as all humans are, one way or another.

But that sounds too solemn. Occasionally Hegi reveals a new, wry approach to the realities of life, one that results in such offhand comments as "She looked like a widow because she was married to Uncle Malcolm" and "Aunt Floria's scent changed with the seasons and kept bugs away at the same time." Further development of this trend would leaven the Teutonic seriousness that comes naturally to Hegi, a German immigrant who came to the United States at the age of 18.

"If you fight for too many things, you won't have anything," says a perceptive uncle, and a latent wisdom of this book is that life goes on. To consent to living is to go right along with it. Maude McDaniel writes from Cumberland, Maryland.

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