The reader meets quirky Chrysalis Moffat, narrator of Sandra Newman's enigmatic and rewarding first novel, as she awaits her adoptive mother's funeral. Chrysa was adopted in 1971 when John Moffat, a biochemist working for the CIA in Guatemala, rescued her after the death of her parents. This bare bones information is meted out by the author in crisp chapters, composed in list form, which jump erratically back and forth in time. Gradually Newman fills in the gaps in Chrysa's story, like a painstakingly assembled jigsaw puzzle.
Chrysa's older brother Eddie returns to California for their mother's burial with his guru Ralph in tow. They decide to turn the mansion Eddie has inherited into the Tibetan School of Miracles and for five months Eddie, Ralph and Chrysa get "college-educated adults to believe chanting made them into good people," thanks to Ralph's prowess at spontaneously spouting "words to live by." Mysteriously Ralph then cracks up, and Eddie leaves to travel and play blackjack with his friend Denise.
In addition to making abrupt time shifts, Newman ties her characters together with fragile threads of coincidence. When Eddie first meets Denise, she inexplicably has a picture of his father, John Moffat, in her briefcase; we find out later that the two were professional blackjack players (a former profession of the author herself). Denise and Ralph share the same father, but have different mothers, and Ralph doesn't realize Eddie knows Denise until he finds her picture in Eddie's suitcase.
While the reader is struggling to keep the dizzying relationships straight, Newman, who was herself adopted and met her biological parents for the first time when she was 25, is focused on how parental love or the lack thereof affects her characters' ability to survive.
Readers who enjoy a bit of a challenge will savor Newman's tale of a young woman's identity search and look forward to her next endeavor to see if she retains her unique and inventive style.
Deborah Donovan is a writer and former librarian in Cincinnati, Ohio.