January 03, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

Brief indeed (at around 200 pages), Jean Harfenist’s Brief History delivers nothing less than the full, turbulent girlhood of Lillian Anderson of Acorn Lake, Minn. Nothing very epic happens in these stories. Lillian’s dark father broods and boozes. Her ditzy, desperate mom insists that Love Will Conquer All. A brother goes to Vietnam. A tag sale turns disastrous. Lillian grows older thinking about sex, then takes a fateful ride with the high school football coach. Love doesn’t conquer all, but Harfenist’s compassion and wry humor nearly do. Jean Harfenist is 51. This is her first book. Here’s hoping that her next will not be so brief.

Mark Costello is the author of the National Book Award-nominated novel Big If.

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