THE WONDER GARDEN, by Lauren Acampora, Grove Press, 354 pp., $24.

Lauren Acampora's debut collection of linked short stories is powerful enough to uncloak childhood memories.

Many of her descriptions of the fictional Old Cranbury evoke the street my family lived on during my middle-school years. Our home in Cherry Hill, N.J., had a pond in back and a red covered bridge nearby. In school, the popular girls wore the Villager label, not the garments Mom lovingly made from Stretch & Sew patterns. My parents served wassail at the annual Christmas supper club party from a vast silver bowl.

I was lucky to live there, play lacrosse and hang out with the neighborhood kids. But like many blessings, it was a two-sided coin. The dark side became painfully evident with the suicide of the oldest boy in our street tribe, a cool guy who didn't have to be nice to the little kids, but was.

Acampora's stories show that an "Anna Karenina" principle still applies: All happy families are the same; the unhappy ones are miserable in their own special way. Or to boil it down to modern terms: mo' money, mo' problems. Your big house in a leafy neighborhood, rooms of elegant furnishings, an impressive job title, the envy of those who mistake affluence for success -- none of it makes you immune to trouble, to suffering, to death.

Add well-drawn characters, interesting plots, cultural zingers and dead-on critiques of consumerism and Acampora delivers a page-turner. Let's meet some of the neighbors:

Rosalie, supermom of five, appears in several stories. She opens her home to the school's foreign exchange student, hosts women's book club meetings, dresses the family in themed Halloween costumes and tries to fill the void left by her workaholic husband.

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Cheryl lives in a historic home and participates in historical re-enactments. She loves Old Cranbury's early American history so much that she would break the law to preserve it. Her children resisted their parents' interest in Puritan pastimes like churning butter or weaving cloth, but a son is sentimental about a pocket watch. Cheryl feels a tug of sadness as he examines the gift with undisguised admiration. "Any true curiosity he may harbor will stand no chance against the brute crush of today's culture, the pressure to plasticize, to comply."

Harold, a finance wizard, sets out to ingratiate himself with his wife's doctor. She has a brain tumor and Harold wants to observe her surgery. He wishes he had become a doctor or scientist. "Brains and galaxies, these places where everyone lives, where everyone floats in an enormous black egg. Every surgeon and astrophysicist and Wall Street banker alive. His own house, deep within the egg, features leafy drapes, decorative wreaths, patterns around the rims of dishes, everything made to chase fear away."

Helen sees a child wandering alone next door and brings her home. While the girl sleeps, Helen sees the mother arrive and frantically search for the girl. Helen stares at the child's food-stained shirt and thinks about her son, who rejects his mother's concern for appearance. "He has never been able to hear her, or willfully blocked her out, when she tries to explain that her attention to dress, to housekeeping, to the front shrubs and flower boxes, is not about impressing others."

Lori, whose husband works for Harold, picks up a box of trendy cookies for a party and decides to take a different route home. At a turn, she waits endlessly for traffic to clear. She thinks about her sons, who are on the brink of manhood. She misses several chances to turn; cars drive around. An hour, then another hour passes; her foot is glued to the brake. "The stop sign looms, its message like an existential injunction for her alone."

Bethany stands on the brink of adulthood with new perspective on her parents' ruined marriage. She sets aside her self-consciousness, melds with the current of music at the Aether music festival and dances with abandon. She imagines her parents in their homes separated "from each other and from this. A stream of pity seeps through her euphoria like ink, shading it, giving it depth. Her parents are ruined children, stiffened in their bodies, ossified in their rituals."


Bethany's parents, like many other residents of Old Cranbury, have paid a high price to live the American dream.