A hilariously caustic first novel by storywriter Rosen (What About the Love Part?, 2002) follows a girl drawn in the wake of her dingbat California mother’s “grand adventure.”
Addicted to abusive men and floundering in service jobs, single mother Colleen Hanley hits on the harebrained scheme of dragging her two girls, Rona, 5, and Justine, 11, to Massachusetts to look up an old boyfriend who won’t even remember who she is. Her last boyfriend, Dale, a nasty Jesus freak and actually Rona’s father, ends the shaky relationship when he punches sassy Justine in the back after a disastrous trip to Disneyland. Justine is no fool about her mother’s lunacies, and, as the ill-begotten road trip is undertaken in a rented truck, it’s plucky and intrepid Justine who serves as the responsible parent—foraging for food and reminding their mother that the truck must be returned following an extended layover in Salt Lake City, when Colleen becomes infatuated with a new loser. Finally, in Hadley, Massachusetts, the penniless, homeless, ragged three must stay with Colleen’s manipulative high-school friend Marie, whose attempts at making Colleen employable become a means of further debasing her already nugatory self-esteem. As a fifth-grade assignment, Justine begins a diary of imaginary pioneers and their numerous children on a dangerous trek in reverse, from Amherst to California; pages from the diary, chronicling hardships of cold, hunger, and sickness in tongue-in-cheek fashion, are interspersed with Justine’s eye-rolling real-life narrative. And while Justine’s troubles would make a bonanza for any social worker—her newly growing body provokes swinish ribbing from the boys in the class, while her mother sinks into such a profound winter depression that she can’t even get out of bed to take the girls to school—Justine’s belligerent resistance to self-pity works in clear-eyed counterpoint to her delusionally doomed mother.
A good strong voice that never lets in the waterworks.