Jean Thompson’s latest compelling and character-driven novel, following 2011’s The Year We Left Home, is set in California, north of the Bay Area, and centers on two dysfunctional single-parent families. The first is headed by Sean, out of work due to a crippling auto accident (initiated by an unfortunate Internet date), and now losing his house to foreclosure. His son Conner, 17, has dropped out of school to become “an amateur thief, an odd-jobs man and hustler”—trying to take up his father’s slack.

The other family consists of Art—an “overeducated and underemployed” 40-year-old with a master’s in English literature whose resumé holds a mélange of jobs including tutor, book reviewer and screenwriter—and his estranged daughter Linnea, whom he hasn’t seen since he moved to California when she was 2. Linnea, now 15, has been traumatized by a school shooting in Ohio, where she lived with her mother and stepfather, and has been handed off to Art to give her a change of scenery as a “test drive, an exile, a visit of uncertain length.”

The lives of these emotionally scarred characters—along with a few others, including Art’s friend Christie, a nurse, and Mrs. Foster, a wealthy widow who is one of Christie’s home-visit patients—intersect in surprising ways, which are gradually revealed in chapters written in their alternating voices. Thompson involves the reader immediately in her characters’ unpredictable situations, each chapter offering a new glimpse into their intertwined lives—resulting in a pithy, psychologically astute and highly entertaining novel.

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