It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is so compelling about Gabrielle Zevin’s new novel. Merely summarizing the plot doesn’t do the book justice—it’s far more gripping than you’d expect from a family drama about the consequences of falling deeper and deeper into credit card debt. The real force of the novel, aside from Zevin’s elegant, no-words-wasted prose, comes from her complicated, multifaceted characters, who have an astonishing capacity for extremes of both generous and selfish behavior.

Zevin has written a number of young adult novels, but the problems she tackles in The Hole We’re In are solidly planted in the adult world, even if the hardest-hit victims are children. Roger Pomeroy is an evangelical patriarch who, at 42, decides that what he needs is to quit his job and return to school full-time. Roger’s wife, Georgia, takes a second job, but without Roger’s salary, and with the wedding of their eldest daughter, Helen, coming up, the family is financially strapped. Unable to pay the bills, Georgia hides them in drawers, pretending everything is fine. When her credit cards are maxed out, she applies for new ones in her children’s names, with dire results. Meanwhile, Roger outdoes himself by carrying on an affair with his academic advisor. Both parents, and their demanding oldest daughter, naturally feel their behavior is entirely justified.

Sadly, the one who ends up paying most for her family’s overextension is the youngest daughter, Patsy. Early in the book, Patsy is banished to her crazy grandmother’s house; she thinks it’s because she was dating a black man, but the real reason is far more sinister and unfair. What she realizes there encapsulates the book’s strongest theme: “For the last 14 days, she’d gone without television, privacy, and regular meals, and consequently she’d had plenty of time for the prayer and reflection that her father believed her to so desperately need. So she’d prayed and reflected and what she’d come to was this: people did what they could live with; all sin was relative.”

If this all sounds incredibly depressing, fear not: Though Patsy’s parents left her a terrible legacy, she’s a tough cookie, and the story allows her the kind of redemption money can’t buy.

Becky Ohlsen is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.

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