Picks and Pans Review: Random Family

updated 03/10/2003 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/10/2003 01:00AM

by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc

Jessica is a beautiful 16-year-old who attracts men on drug-ravaged Tremont Avenue in The Bronx. Coco is a good-hearted 14-year-old who tucks lollipops into her ponytail and slathers Vaseline on her face to prevent scarring from unavoidable fights. Journalist LeBlanc spent a decade immersed in the lives of these two Puerto Rican girls and their very extended families. She emerges with a riveting portrait of the other America, where "better than was the true marker" of success: "Family fights indoors...were better-than taking private business to the street. Heroin was bad, but crack was worse. A girl who had four kids by two boys was better than a girl who had four by three."

LeBlanc doesn't hand-wring. She simply follows the girls and their random families on chaotic days at clinics, prisons, welfare offices. With harrowing eloquence, they remind us that people are more than the sum of their circumstances. (Scribner, $25)

BOTTOM LINE: Rich portrait of the poor

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