Stephanie Rosenfeld, Author . Ballantine $23.95 (400p) ISBN 978-0-345-44825-5

Justine Hanley, an amazingly resourceful 12-year-old, battles endlessly in this sparkling, madcap first novel to make an ordinary life for herself, her depressive mother, Colleen, and Rona, her cranky five-year-old sister. Rosenfeld, author of the short story collection What About the Love Part?, adeptly portrays the family's slide into disaster, using just the right amount of humor and pathos. In California, the latest loser in Colleen's life, her abusive born-again boyfriend Dale, alienates Colleen from her friends and family. When she finally decides to leave him, she takes Justine and Rona on a cross-country journey to Massachusetts, ostensibly to hook up with some guy she met during her single years. The three move in with Colleen's old friend Marie, who has her own family to look after and grows more and more impatient as Colleen slips into paralyzing depression. As the achingly vulnerable Justine looks on, Colleen ricochets from one boyfriend and job disaster to the next, always looking for love in the worst places and never finding the right kind of job to support her family. Through it all, Justine does her best to keep up her mom's spirits, humor her younger sister and face her own demons in the form of bullying kids at school and a hopelessly clueless teacher. Justine's first-person narration is wry and engaging (" 'Go with the flow," was a stupid, hippie way of saying, 'Do what other people want you to do' "), and Rosenfeld's decision to intercut the story with ongoing excerpts from Justine's pioneer diary—a school assignment that turns into a coded life story—is a clever device. Insightful and bitterly funny, this is a winning effort. (May)

Forecast:The obvious comparison is to Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here, and Rosenfeld should win readers among fans of mother-daughter sagas.