Lily Hill, the main character in Nancy Clark's delightful debut novel The Hills at Home, is more of a balance wheel than a protagonist. Lily is both uber-maiden aunt and Mrs. Noah, providing a refuge for family members who need to come in out of the rain. All in one summer, they descend on her and her elastic New England homestead.

First, her thrice-widowed brother, Harvey, shows up; then her niece, self-dramatizing Ginger, fleeing her own mistakes, together with her daughter, Betsy. Toward the end of June, along come Lily's nephew, Wall-Street reject Alden and his sensible wife Becky, with their four teenage children. Finally, Harvey's grandson, aspiring comedian Arthur, arrives, with his girlfriend, Phoebe. When the young sociologist Andy Happening joins the throng to study the family for his Ph.

D. thesis, the cast is, more or less, complete. Lily makes room for them all, and Clark records the year that follows in this wry, dense chronicle that sets a new standard for modern family novels, a 20th century Trollope (it's set in 1989, which permeates its pages), a more ambitious, and funnier, Anne Tyler. First in a series of three projected novels about the same family, The Hills at Home values observation (pinpoint) over action (glacial). Readers won't complain because the observation itself is jam-packed with movement, not only of ideas, but of all those little quirks, tics and tropes lesser novelists ignore. ("Becky had a way of withholding comment that was very marked.") If Clark does not gain recognition as one of the best new writers of the year, it may be because her book does not take itself as seriously as some literary novels. Still, her portrait of the day-to-day strains in family life is sharply drawn, and, what's more, offers a harvest ground of subtle, smile-out-loud hilarity. We wish Clark good luck in her future efforts. The Hills at Home is a formidable act to follow.

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