Two contrasting families constitute Shreve's canvas here, and she brings some refreshing punch to their characterization. Mary Leafy, just finishing her junior year, got herself expelled from Catholic school in ninth grade so she could ""go to public school and lose my virginity, which is what I thought happened to everyone in the first weeks of public school."" So far, though, Mary has had only one date, and her overbearing 180-pound mother squelched that by telling the boy, ""Take good care of her. She's never been out on a date before."" It's to escape her mother, determined maker of a Wonderful Family and D.C.-area chairman of Life Chance, a national Catholic organization against contraception, that Mary runs away from home--about 10 blocks away--to spend the summer as mother's helper to Professor Sally Page of Georgetown University. The choice of haven is deliberate: As Sally Page has spoken openly for women's right to choose abortion, ""My mother would prefer I moved in with the devil in drag."" But even Mary is taken aback by Sally's husband, an unemployed minister who sleeps in the living room in his casket and frequently hosts members of his Death Group, who bring their own. Also on hand is Sally's younger brother Zeke, who is painting the house in return for room and board. In this chaotic household, Mary is expected to cook, though she doesn't know how (no one notices), and to care for the Pages' three difficult children. Surprisingly, she almost immediately tames impossible Albert, the oldest, who bites. She has more trouble coping with Sally's marital troubles. (""She's asking me what to do. . . . I have enough trouble deciding what to wear""), but these are resolved when the Reverend Page moves out. (It seems that he's been climbing out of his casket and in with a resident woman minister.) When Mary's mother locates her, she sets out to get Sally fired on the abortion issue, but uncharacteristically relents. And as Mary wins some respect and independence from her mother (this comes disarmingly as an offering of ""diet juice"" and bikini underwear), she finds herself filled with reciprocal love and understanding. Granted, the split and reconciliation occur with a pace and finality more common in YA novels than in life, and the figure of Mary's mother is unabashedly flatter and broader than life. But this entertaining rendition of adolescent breaking-away is imbued with enough spirit and sympathy to stand up by itself.