cover image Joy School

Joy School

Elizabeth Berg. Random House (NY), $19 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-679-44943-0

""This place and I do not get along,"" says 12-year-old army brat Katie, the narrator of Berg's (Talk Before Sleep) painfully accurate tale of first love in the days of princess phones and circle pins. After moving to Missouri from Texas with her stern father (her beloved mother is dead), bright, sensitive Katie has trouble fitting in. The few friends she does make include an antisocial rich girl and a beautiful shoplifter, fellow outsiders who can't quite quench her loneliness. Far more satisfying is the companionship she finds in Jimmy, a 23-year-old married gas station manager with a heart of gold. As Katie is enveloped by her yearning for Jimmy, her romantic preadolescent fantasies convey all the hope and exquisite vulnerability of first love. Katie's matter-of-fact narration is wonderfully touching, escorting the reader into a world where young girls treat the dos and don'ts of Glamour magazine with the hushed respect due the Ten Commandments. Whether chronicling the fun way to bake peanut butter cookies or her heroine's budding passion for literature, Berg sensitively mines the loneliness and bewilderment inherent in being young, insecure and desperate for connection. As she has demonstrated in previous books, Berg can conjure character with a minimum of words and a rainbow of nuance. The reader misses Katie the instant the book ends. Major ad/promo; author tour. (Apr.)