The Bitch Posse begins with some sly but apt Consumer Product Information, which warns the reader about what is to come with an intense sense of immediacy. Fortunately for the reader, first-time novelist Martha O'Connor occasionally relaxes her grip a bit, or the novel's stunning rawness would be almost too much. O'Connor wrote The Bitch Posse in retaliation against chick lit, which she finds too neat and too unlike her own life. In response, she brings us the horrifying, sad and valiant stories of three best friends. There's Amy, the cheerleader who quit cheering; Rennie, the brightest of the bright and seemingly utterly in control; and Cherry, obsessed with Princess Diana. We get the points of view of each, both as high-school seniors and as women in their early 30s who are still grappling with their various demons, made all the harder to conquer by a shared violent secret that keeps them apart after it occurs. O'Connor, describing a moment between Amy and her husband, could be talking about any one of the trio: They have a conversation without words and without tears (they've been driven so deep they'll never come out). There is nothing easy about the world O'Connor brings to life with strokes both bold and detailed. Self-mutilation is a theme, but she is very convincing on why anyone would feel the need to do it. And The Bitch Possemakes a strong case for how children, no matter how smart or rational, can be victims of the adults meant to protect them. Amy's parents are alcoholics occupied with their older mentally handicapped daughter and expect Amy to give them no additional worries. Rennie, who still looks like a child and is intellectually gifted, is involved in an affair with a married teacher; and Cherry, an artist and poet who believes she is not the equal of her friends and doesn't hesitate to sacrifice her future for theirs, remains under the control of a drug-addicted mother.

Still, O'Connor doesn't rule out the possibility of hope and redemption and, after what the reader has gone through with these young women, that possibility is very welcome indeed. Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

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