Local Girls by Alice Hoffman Chatto, pounds 10, 197pp
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LIKE THE two girls in the Carly Simon song, Alice Hoffman's high school heroines are looking for lurve. Jill (the pretty one) finds it in the arms of Eddie Lopacca, Gretal (the smart one) in the back seat of a Red Camaro. In between waiting, the two friends sit on the front porch smoking stolen Salems, staring at the stars.

Set in a tidy Long Island suburb, the author's latest book - compiled from short stories that originally appeared in Redbook, Cosmopolitan and Ladies' Home Journal - pinpoints critical moments in the lives of the two girls and their troubled families.

When we first meet Gretal her parents are on the verge of splitting up, fighting "like pit bulls trapped in an L-shaped living room." As the months progress, life gets ever more grim as her mother is diagnosed with breast cancer, and older brother Jason throws in his place at Harvard for a job in the deli section at Food Star. In the meantime, Jill's mother, the queen of the PTA, is admitted for shock treatment, and Jill gets pregnant with Eddie's baby. In fact, it has all the makings of a classic Hoffman tale of depressed children, single mums and bad luck men.

A bestselling novelist in the States, and an Oprah Winfrey Book Club author, Hoffman is a hard writer to pin down. Her novels (and she's written shelves of them) are showcases of precise, seductive prose. She isn't afraid to tackle difficult subjects (family breakdown, Aids, suicide), but just as her magic starts to work, she spoils the effect with an overdose of cute: tinkling wind-chimes, talking cats and greetings-card philosophy. A writer best suited to the hyped up sentiments of adolescence - her most recent novel, Here on Earth, is a contemporary reworking of Wuthering Heights - Hoffman's work hints at, rather than grapples with, grown-up emotions. EH