Alexander, who has anatomized the lives of Patty Hearst, Jean Harris, and others (Anyone's Daughter, 1979, etc.) now wields her scalpel gently but with precision as she dissects her own family history; what is laid bare is tantalizingly mysterious, profoundly sad, and always riveting. Her childhood should have been charmed: Her father, Milton Ager, was a composer of hit tunes, including ``Happy Days Are Here Again''; her mother, Cecelia Ager, was a notedly astute and acerbic film critic. Famous folks waltzed in and out of their lives: George Gershwin, Oscar Levant, ``Dottie'' Parker. But chubby little Shana and her sister, Laurel, were not happy girls. They were suddenly uprooted from their one-of-a-kind apartment (painted for them by stage designer James Reynolds) and moved into a residential hotel with separate bedrooms for each parent (the senior Agers' living pattern for the rest of their very separate lives). Worse yet was the coldness of Cecelia and the harsh regime she imposed on her children. Why did they move? Why, despite their apparent mismatch, did the Agers never divorce? Was George Gershwin ever Cecelia's lover? As the grown-up Shana tries to reconstruct events and resolve these puzzles, a deliciously variegated narrative emerges: a history of Tin Pan Alley; a Jewish immigrant story; tales of tragic love and the complex bonds that tie mothers and daughters. Thanks to Alexander's humanity and insight, these elements all transcend the clichÇs that describe them. And she has a roster of wonderful characters, from her wild, fiery great-aunt, writer Anzia Yezierska, to her second husband, a ne'er-do-well whose reach was pathetically beyond his grasp. The author herself, as she matures, grows obsessed with her wish to be the ideal mother, even as her career burgeons and she fails to conceive a baby. Alexander says she wanted to write Patty Hearst's story because she found it quintessentially American. So is her own story, and she tells it here with great style.