Picks and Pans Review: Name All the Animals

updated 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/23/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

By Alison Smith
CRITIC'S CHOICE

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Smith's vigorously Catholic family might not have been accomplished, but they certainly knew how to keep the faith. In their loving but insular world, not believing in God was "like saying you didn't believe in oatmeal, or motorcars, or the laws of gravity." Fifteen-year-old Alison and her older brother Roy would wake up each morning as their father blessed them with holy relics, and Alison routinely had visions of Jesus, whom she considered her most intimate friend.

But her faith is horribly challenged when, weeks before he plans to start college, Roy is suddenly killed in a car crash. This intimate and quietly piercing memoir describes three years of Alison's adolescence in Rochester, N.Y., as she struggles with her grief. At first she is unmoored—refusing food, compulsively reading and aimlessly roaming the halls of Our Lady of Mercy School for Girls, where the nuns prescribe prayer and a stint at the state hospital teaching lobotomy patients how to sew. A respite comes from the ancient Sister Aggie, who shows Alison how to put her head down the laundry chute and uncork a good, therapeutic scream. But it is not until she begins a clandestine love affair with a more worldly girl at school that Alison starts to emerge from her brother's shadow. With a clear eye and an unsentimental heart, Smith writes a deeply moving elegy about devastating loss and how it can be redeemed.

MEMOIR

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