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Rachel Sherman's 'Living Room' has a dark motif

LIVING ROOM, by Rachel Sherman. Open City Books, 288 pp., $14.95 paper.

'Living Room," Rachel Sherman's bleak first novel, takes its title from the hangout favored by the teens that populate the book. It is a clearing in the woods behind their Long Island high school equipped with a complete set of living room furniture - sofa, chairs, rug, etc. - which looks pristine from afar. Up close, the upholstery reeks of mold and soaks the clothes of anyone who dares to sit on it.

"It seems so strange that people ignore it," thinks the book's heroine, Abby, of the stench and damp upon first visiting this legendary spot, which figures prominently in the lore of the cool kids who have cautiously accepted her into their ranks. This duality - the rot at the center of the red leather couch - lends the title its lovely, if heavy-handed, metaphorical weight, for "Living Room" is a novel of suburban corruption - a genre unto itself at this stage in American letters.

"Living Room" takes place over the course of a week or so, tracking back and forth between Abby; her mother, Livia; and her ailing grandmother, Headie, who is all but a prisoner in her Pennsylvania home. While Abby chugs beer on her lawn, makes out with a lacrosse player, sneaks out her window to smoke and gets drawn into Jenna's dubious plan to secure a bottle of vodka for the next pep rally, the monstrously self-involved Livia consumes nausea-inducing quantities of junk food and nurses an inexplicable rage toward Abby's father, Jeffrey.

Headie sends out chatty e-mail missives to her family but declines to mention that her main companions are a gaggle of dancing couples who mysteriously appear in her peripheral vision and that for weeks she's been crawling, rather than walking, around her house, as standing has come to seem like too much of an effort.

Sherman, who grew up in Cold Spring Harbor and now lives in Brooklyn, walks a careful line between stylized realism and caricature, sometimes veering too far toward the latter. While she draws Abby and Headie with tender precision, Livia reads more as a parody of baby boomer-style narcissism than a representation of an actual human being. She's shocked when no one but her therapist is interested in hearing detailed descriptions of her dreams and furious that Jeffrey actually expects her to look after Abby, even in the most basic way: in Abby's infancy, she plugged her ears and simply let the baby cry all day, until Jeffrey suggested that this might be, er, negligent.

Such heartrending cruelties are of particular fascination to Sherman, whose project here seems to be, in part, to display the myriad ways in which we exist in a sort of ongoing psychic pain, endlessly inflicting emotional violence on those we ostensibly love best. This is perhaps the eternal subject of all domestic fiction - from John Cheever to Rick Moody to Jonathan Franzen - but Sherman's take proves particularly grim. There is, it's worth noting, another living room in the novel: the one in Abby's house. But no living occurs there, other than the occasional viewing of a reality television show. Abby, Livia and Jeffrey spend the few hours they're all at home locked away in their separate lairs, utterly, unhappily alone.

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