Here, as in Rosie (1983), the strongest of her three earlier novels, Lamott's central character is a smart, sassy, and affecting young girl who sorts through life's mysteries by observing the adults around her. After her marriage crumbles, Nanny Goodman returns to the small town in northern California where she gew up, and, almost immediately, she's swept back to the time of her childhood in the early 60's--when life seemed both safer and more precarious. Nanny's father, Robbie, was a writer and teacher who never made enough money. Her mother, Marie, was a political leftist and self-styled Christian, given to wandering around the house in her underwear and telling God exactly what was on her mind. Casey, Nanny's older brother, was an enthusiastic and inept young ballplayer, later caught up in a dope-smoking adolescence. Nanny recalls her family's life in wonderful, evocative still-life scenes. ""Tiny waves sloshed the shore and it smelled like salt and rain and seaweed"" on the momentous day when her aunt Peg abandoned her husband and left home. Weeks later, swallows ""dipped and darted through the air, blue-black on top, camel and cinnamon colors beneath"" as Peg drove back into town. What Nanny captures most poignantly of all, though, is that peculiar flood of feeling--embarrassment, pride, despair, love--that swirls around every family and, sometimes, draws them under. This is the mystery that Lamott ponders: why some families sink and others stay afloat. There's no easy answer, but this novel, both deep and buoyant, holds a few good clues.