A vivid, fast-paced but schematic reprise of familiar themes from Alther (Bedrock, 1990, etc.), as latest protagonist Jude learns about love, life, and her sexuality in Tennessee, Manhattan, and Paris. When her beautiful mother dies in childbirth, Jude experiences the first of three traumatic losses that will shadow her life for many years. ``I want to be in heaven with my momma,'' she tells her father, the doctor in their Tennessee mountain town. But she also tells their housekeeper, ``I don't want to be a girl,'' because girls grow up, have babies, and die like her mother. Having laid out the themes of death and identity, Alther briskly moves on to tell the story of Jude's defining friendship with new neighbor Molly, a soulmate with whom she shares numerous activities. Junior high tests a friendship that had endured since first grade, as Molly, frightened of what her feelings for Jude imply, begins dating boys. When she's killed in an automobile accident, Jude's only consolation is local nerd Sandy's friendship. Sandy moves to New York and becomes an opera technician; Jude, now a graduate student, moves in with him and his friends. She soon learns that Sandy is gay, but there's a palpable attraction between them that they consummate only a few days before the Stonewall riots, in the wake of which Sandy is savagely beaten and dies. Poor Jude, now a successful editor, seems jinxed: Her next lover, an older married woman, also dies. But returning home after an unhappy time working in Paris, Jude finally understands that love, even when it ends with death, is ``the only thing about her that would survive.'' She is now ready to live and love again. Alther has the enviable knack of giving some heft to usually anodyne women's fiction, though her characters, often composites of current feminist angsts, are less successful. Still, fans will enjoy.