Blame‘s Patsy McLemoore is a newly minted college professor in Southern California with long legs, a Colgate smile, and seemingly limitless academic promise. She’s also a blackout alcoholic. When the 29-year-old wakes up from one obliterated evening in county jail, she is met with sickening news: She has killed a young mother and daughter with her car, a brutal, irreversible crime that she can only hazily recall.

What follows is a chronicle of her imprisonment, and subsequent lifelong search for atonement — until a lightning-bolt revelation forces her to reassess nearly everything that came before. It’s a plot that, in the kind of foil-embossed paperbacks you pick up at the airport newsstand, could easily turn hamfisted or hokey. But the award-winning Michelle Huneven unfurls her tale with unflagging emotional nuance: Patsy emerges as smart, self-aware, and very much flawed, neither a monster nor a redeemed angel.

The novel, which begins somewhat shakily (Patsy the drunk is far less charming than she believes herself to be), finds its stride in the protagonist’s life after the accident: the social and spiritual corkscrew from private citizen to convict and back again; a surprising kinship with the father and son left behind by the victims; her shifting connections to old friends and new AA companions. Readers looking for a drum-tight denouement won’t find one here; for Huneven, the blame of the title isn’t some black-and-white object to explain or assign so much as it is something to explore in countless shades of gray. The result is a novel that combines the compulsive pleasures of a pageturner and the deeper satisfaction of true, thoughtful literature. A?