By the Shore

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April 23, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Twelve is a difficult age, both to experience and to write about; bridging childhood and adolescence, it’s neither here nor there. Telling a story from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl is a daunting task for any author, but as this subtle debut novel proves, in the right hands such a narrator can be mesmerizing. The 12-year-old in question is May, London-born but living in a small village on the lonely coast of England where her mom, an ex-rock groupie, has half-heartedly opened a B&B. There the family (which includes May’s younger half brother) exists in uneasy harmony, regarded by the villagers and May’s schoolmates as foreign creatures, until the winter Rufus, a shy and shambling writer, comes looking for a place to work. The male presence has the expected, unsettling results: May watches her mother and Rufus dance around each other in a chaste ritual of courtship, pines for her own very absent father, and lashes out at her equally present mother. When Rufus’ glamorous editor arrives on the doorstep, primed to win him for herself, and May’s dad shows up, ostensibly to spend Christmas with his daughter but really to wheedle money out of his ex-wife, love, lust, and frustration all come to a head. Still, May remains a wonderfully guileless observer. Though she notes, “It’s hard to tell anyone the whole truth, to give it all away,” the whole, surprisingly familiar truth is exactly what By the Shore tells. A-

By the Shore

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By the Shore

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