arie Brown, the heroine of Jenny McPhee's clever debut novel, The Center of Things, is tall (she compares herself to Olive Oyl), unmarried, deaf in one ear and agonizingly early for every appointment. Marie has an estranged brother, a passion for old movies and an inexplicable compulsion to finish her philosophy of science paper, begun 15 years before during a brief, unsuccessful stint in grad school.

If she can just finish the paper, Marie thinks, she can discover her true self and make sense of the world.

Marie's obsession leads her to spend long hours at the public library, where she meets the mysterious (and shorter) Marco, a "freelance intellectual" who habitually wears a loose blue suit which, Marie conjectures, might be either pajamas or a Chinese Communist Party uniform.

As if Marie doesn't have enough going on, she's also on the brink of her first big career break in her chosen field: tabloid journalism. For the past 10 years she's worked at the Gotham City Star, "Manhattan's only remaining evening tabloid." When Marie's childhood idol, film star Nora Mars (the girl next door gone awry), slips into a coma, Marie begs for the chance to write her first solo article. And so Marie sets out to discover the deep, dark secrets in the life of the former movie star, famous for such lines as, "The more I get to know other people, the better I like myself." Part mystery, part comedy, part love story and part science lesson, The Center of Things bursts with quirky characters, entertaining references to old movies real and imagined, and ideas about the nature of the universe. Can a tabloid journalist who looks like Olive Oyl and thinks like Carl Sagan ever find love and happiness? In the affectionate universe created by author Jenny McPhee (whose father is writer John McPhee), even the most implausible things become possible. Besides, as the infamous Nora Mars once said, "Every story is a love story." When she is not writing books for children, Deborah Hopkinson watches old movies in Walla Walla, Washington.

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