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Lucy Bloom wakes up on her 11th birthday luxuriating in a dream about a shiny new bike she hopes to receive. Instead, she is gifted with a pair of scuffed metal roller skates. She doesn't complain, just dutifully laces up and trots awkwardly down the street, silently hoping things will get better. This sets the stage for Lucy's clumsy journey of stubborn stoicism, wishing her life will get easier and grasping for control whenever she can get it.

She hopes her parents will get along and be happy, that Estelle Pomper and her cruel clan of bitchy preteens will stop ostracizing her, and that she will someday not befit the moniker Boney the Bug Eyes. From the start of this snappy coming-of-age novel, you want tenderhearted Lucy to kick some ass in her tiny world, populated with unhappy adults and their lonely offspring. Bloom is an imaginative only-child brilliantly imagined by Lauren Kirshner, who creates a first-person narrator you never stop rooting for, even while cringing at the awkwardness of her journey.

The book is divided into four sections organized by age - preteen, junior high and high school, and ending with a short send-off to adulthood. A lot happens to Lucy in each segment, while she seeks out home and identity despite a tilt-a-whirl of unpredictable circumstances.

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  • Where We Have to Go, by Lauren Kirshner, Emblem, 256 pages, $22.99

In section one, we meet the Bloom parents, true 1980s archetypes dealing with the dissolution of that era's glitzy promise, sliding sourly into the early 1990s of failed Boomer dreams. They gave in to marriage and starting a family when perhaps neither truly wanted to, and remain self-obsessed from start to finish. Despite their navel-gazing, you can empathize with their sadness, and Lucy never stops wishing they would get it together. She deals with the consequences of their bitter lives, but rarely points a finger.

"Lucy, it's better to be weak than to be lonely," her father Frank imparts, after she secretly uncovers the truth about his adultery. Frank had some brief success in the 1980s with photography, and opened up his own Glamour Shots boutique. The business goes belly up and he suffers through a job at a local travel agency, longing for his past and unable to keep up with new technology. An album of pictures from the Glamour Shots era is a musty-smelling piece of nostalgia Lucy loves to peer at as a symbol of her father's happier life, and a hopeful display of the woman she wants to become. She wonders about the women in the photos, who she admires like "peacocks or shiny snakes at the zoo." She is especially drawn to the one signed "All my love, Allie."

When Lucy accompanies her father to an AA meeting, she meets a tall, beautiful woman to whom the whole room seems drawn, the antithesis of her more pragmatically attired, zaftig mother. She turns out to be Allie, years later, and whip-smart Lucy correctly intuits her to be Frank's mistress. She nicknames Allie Crashing Wave, and becomes briefly obsessed with her.

Her parents separate for a short while, and Lucy moves with her mother into a small apartment on the 11th floor of Tivoli Towers, which Lucy observes as having "hotel-like loneliness," overlooking a Toronto that suddenly looks "huge, a fall without a net, deep as a canyon."

Kirshner's Lucy is so real, despite her journey on well-worn literary terrain. The coming-of-age themes are familiar ones: awkwardness around boys, emergent eating disorders, divorce, painful female friendships and sexual discovery. But Kirshner makes them unique, creating a spunky, unpredictable fighter in Lucy Bloom.

The Bloom parents reunite, mostly because they do not want to be alone, and Lucy starts Grade 8 wearing unfortunate thrift-store treasures purchased by her mother. She begins by burying her salami sandwiches at lunch while spying on the popular girls. Once her parents clue in, she is briefly hospitalized.

Instead of ending the novel here, or focusing on the eating disorder as the main crisis point, Kirshner takes Lucy in and out of the hospital and on to adolescence and a continual journey. She avoids turning the book into an issue novel, and this enriches the story with authenticity. Kirshner tempers any potential for melodrama with an expert eye for specific detail and the curt, cruel dialogue of teen girls hell-bent on destroying each other despite their abject loneliness. She is also adept at writing perfect pop-cultural detail: the emotional resonance of Alf, a hamster named Charlie Sheen, lite-brite pegs in Lucy's pockets, all situating the story in a particular moment in recent Toronto history.

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In the third section, Lucy develops an independent streak and a keen perspective on her parents as adults as they continue to struggle. Throughout the book, Lucy needs more attention than she gets from anyone, and I was thankful for the arrival of Erin, a cool artsy girl who finally has Lucy's back. She gets a job at a discount department store downtown, a quasi-Honest Ed's, and begins to break away from her family's isolation and financial difficulties. Erin and Lucy pal around as duo outcasts, and Lucy becomes stronger for the hardships that lay ahead in the final section.

Where We Have to Go is a sombre but playful saga of a nerdy girl's fight for herself and her family, and highlights Kirshner as a new novelist to watch. A very strong, original debut.

Zoe Whittall's second novel, Holding Still for as Long as Possible, will be published this September.

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