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Sunday, May 12, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

An authentic take on flaky parenting

Seattle Times staff reporter

"Places to Look for a Mother"


by Nicole Stansbury
Carroll & Graf, $22

There is a substantial and growing sub-genre of novels by women that can be filed under the category: "How I Survived Being Raised By a Zany, Mentally Unstable Mother." An early, best-selling example was Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here," about a daughter on the road with her flighty mom.

But even if the theme is getting familiar, there is always room for a fiction work as tartly observant and engaging as Utah writer Nicole Stansbury's first novel.

Stage center in "Places to Look for a Mother" is Miriam Taylor, a pretty, chronically restless housewife who keeps trying to invent a more exotic and glamorous role for herself — whether that means suddenly deciding she's Mexican or Native American, or briefly becoming a Mormon.

On her desperate search for fulfillment, Miriam ditches her square but reliable husband, Bob, and makes life eventful but very insecure and rootless for her two daughters, Lucy and her older sister, Jen.

The book is colorfully narrated from Lucy's sardonic, exasperated point of view. And for the most part, Stansbury adroitly conveys the deeply mixed feelings children have for flamboyant, unreliable parents. She also keenly portrays how members of a fracturing family divide into separate camps of affection.

You end up believing that both "normal" Bob and wildly eccentric Miriam love their kids, and that they both renege on their basic parental responsibilities — a mixed emotional bag that feels very authentic.

The novel's momentum sputters in the end, deflating some of the story's comic verve and emotional sting. But even without a proper finale, "Places to Look for a Mother" is a strong freshman effort by a gifted chronicler of fraying family ties.

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