A slight, psychological whimsy--with British first-novelist Murphy adapting an avant-garde-fiction technique to the modest demands of domestic comedy/drama: the entire book consists of free-associative musings on an alphabetical word list--from ""abacus"" to ""mother"". . . which is Sally's key word. As is slowly revealed, you see, aging and unwed grad-student Sally is in a state about the disappearance of her teenage son Sebastian, longtime problem-child and recent drug addict; he has only just found out that his natural father is the loathsome Prof. Pope, Sally's long-ago lover and current boss in social-work academia. So, while trying to finish her thesis at her mother's seaside cottage, Sally worries guiltily about Sebastian and broods about the past--which also includes ex-lover Bruce Wild, creator of the successful Bruce Wild Therapy, an idea stolen from Sally. (The therapy? To write precisely the sort of ""personal encyclopedia"" which Sally is writing here.) Meanwhile, Sally's musings touch on the hectic goings-on at Mum's increasingly crowded cottage: the raucous frolickings of nieces and nephews; the arrival of bovine sister Kate and selfish sister Julia, estranged from husband Sven; assorted adulteries, involving Julia, a local rogue, and an elderly neighbor's young wife. And then a transformed Sebastian appears--in sweet therapeutic symbiosis with paraplegic Selena, his lover and ""control."" (They've both been cured of their addiction via hypnosis.) The happy ending here is rather too cute and fairy-tale-ish. Sally's tortured regrets about Sebastian's upbringing sometimes slip over into soap-opera. But, with the alphabet-gimmick providing an edgy (if cutesy) framework, Murphy manages to make this a mostly diverting curiosity--blending academia-satire, offbeat family tangles (reminiscent of playwright Alan Ayckbourn), and meditations on motherhood.