A disturbing coming-of-ager about a girl who grows up one ’70s summer amid drugs, sex, and art camp.
Alice Duncan, 11, suffers from an unnamed disorder that has caused the early onset of adolescence. The result is that the grade-schooler stands five seven and has the curves of a pin-up girl. But Alice also suffers from: her mother Rain, who left the family a couple of years ago; her father, a once rich and famous artist, who’s retreated to a Connecticut asylum; and her guardian, “Aunt” Esme, really her 16-year-old half-sister, who has a penchant for white powders and Led Zeppelin. The two live in Manhattan and pretend to be grownups, but even Alice knows that their freedom is really nothing more than parental neglect. Wanting to follow an Iggy Pop–like rocker to LA, Esme decides to ship Alice off to the Balthus Institute, a summer camp for seriously artistic adolescents. The Institute was once quite the thing, but now the paint is peeling and there are few artists in residence left—and even fewer students. Alice steals Esme’s clothes and easily passes for the 16-and-a-half that she’s claiming. She makes collages that garner the attention of her instructor and the derision of twins Faith and Hope, who take creepy photos of a toy soldier named after their brother killed in Vietnam. But the real center of novel is Alice’s relationship with J.D., a thirtysomething drug-dealer and charmer, a kind of hanger-on at the Institute, and a man (we learn later) with a penchant for young girls. The slow seduction of Alice by J.D. lies somewhere between the story of a pedophile stalking his prey and that of a free-love druggie who believes Alice is as old as she looks. One Pill begins with a quirky entourage of characters and ends with something like a drug-induced rape.
A strong debut exploring the subtleties of sex, power, and growing up in the ’70s.