cover image Tea


Stacey D'Erasmo. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $21.95 (317pp) ISBN 978-1-56512-243-7

In her wry, sensitive first novel, D'Erasmo, a former editor at the Voice Literary Supplement and Bookforum, charts the crucial moments of young Isabel Gold's coming of age before and after the suicide of her mother. The protagonist and her sister, Jeannie, live with their parents in a Philadelphia suburb. Isabel's father runs a dry-cleaning business and her mother, Cassie, runs off to New York to see musicals or stays home glued to the soaps while drinking whisky from a teacup. As a young girl, Isabel studies the ancient Romans and sees her family life as bits of evidence for future archeologists looking for clues. While Isabel observes her mother's fragile state, the narrative follows Isabel's maturation--her teenage friendship with the blonde sylph, Lottie, and Lottie's boyfriend, Ben; her first love affair with a woman, whom she meets at a community theater; and her wrenching first heartbreak. Isabel's mother's suicide takes place offstage, and D'Erasmo reveals how and when the memories of her mother's life and death insinuate themselves into Isabel's consciousness. Punctuated by moments that are radiantly moving (every year Isabel imagines the gift her mother would give her for her birthday) or hilarious (Isabel's childhood friend, playing Get Smart, calls God on the shoe phone), D'Erasmo's tale eschews labels, politics and generalizations. Hers is an intimate story, suffused with irony, humor and a close, sensuous attention to physical detail. Isabel's world opens up generously, providing the reader with the intimate truths and emotional complexity that make this impressive debut unforgettable. Agent, Jennifer Carlson. 5-city author tour. (Jan.)