Britisher Donnelly (Holy Mother, 1987, etc.) offers a semicomic novel about the search for family identity that misses the mark--despite well-honed characters and good intentions. Chicagoan and stand-up comedian Allegra O'Riordan returns home from her father's funeral only to discover later, as she sifts among his effects, an unknown photograph of her mother. Having died when Allegra was just three, her mother, never spoken of at home, always seemed a complete enigma. But this photo evokes an altogether different view. In it, the young Theresa Higgins is a sexy beach bunny bouncing around in her native Los Angeles--stern phantom no more. Inspired by the picture and the cryptic message written on its back, Allegra ventures to L.A. to dispel the maternal mists. Her first attempt fails miserably. Allegra's uncle John is more interested in the pork roast than in her questions. She next visits the bookstore where her mother worked before she married, and Helen Viner remembers Theresa, but just barely. Finally, at a family barbecue, Allegra meets a priest acquainted with the Higgins family, and she asks him about her mother . . . with surprising results. The priest suddenly turns tight-lipped and spits out a few words about ""sin"" before he retreats into the crowd. When Helen Viner dies not long after Allegra pumps her one last time for info, the obsessed daughter happens on Theresa's old friend Alice. Chatty and no kin to anyone at hand, Alice willingly reveals the darkest family secrets (especially the one that turned the smiling girl of the photo definitively dour). Packed with the rites, rituals, trials, and tribulations sadly common to modern Catholics, the story here unfortunately relies too heavily on our interest in them. (Of course, that assumption can itself be entertaining.) Still, when the Mystery is unveiled, it hardly seems worth the journey.