A big book on families in America--dysfunctional and otherwise--by the always sympathetic Scarf (Intimate Partners, 1987, etc.), who has done her homework and more. Psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, developmental theory, and ethology are among the schools of interpersonal behavior brought to bear on this searching analysis of the structure and function of families. They form part of the framework for a taxonomy, the ""Beavers Systems Model"" (after psychologist W. Robert Beavers), that arrays families across a five-level continuum from ""Severely Disturbed"" (level 5) through ""Borderline,"" ""Midrange,"" ""Adequate,"" and ""Optimal"" (level 1). The key determinants on where a particular family fits have to do with how issues of intimacy, power, and conflict are handled. There's no question that as a scholar/writer/interviewer, Scarf is one of the best. Much of the book is verbatim dialogue and interpretation of four families, illustrating levels 5 though 2. We meet, for instance, the ""Borderline"" very well off Maguires, dominated by Dad the dictator, with a daughter who gains autonomy through bulimia; and the rule-bound ""Midrange"" Giffords, who project their problems of intimacy into arguments about disciplining their little daughter. The four families come alive in multiple interviews that start out with family ""genograms,"" which often reveal startling similarities in the family backgrounds of the parents and a repetition of patterns of behavior across generations. Amplifying the interviews is text describing research and theories on early infancy. An interesting chapter raises the question of what determines resilience in individuals whose childhood backgrounds would predict disaster. Certainly not book a book that has all the answers; it ignores, for example, the influence of peers and role models outside the family. Nevertheless, we are treated to a wonderfully absorbing journey into the lives of some memorable families--guided by an expert who is not above putting her own family in the Beavers spectrum.