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An open adoption tests family ties in moving 'Girls'

("Girls in Trouble"; By Caroline Leavitt; St. Martin's, 368 pp.; $24.95.)

On paper, the concept of "open adoption" seems a win-win situation. Birth parents don't have to completely give up their child, but can maintain contact, perhaps even have a role in raising their offspring without the financial and emotional commitment of full parental responsibility. Adoptive parents have not only physical links to their child, but other loving influences on their child's development. And for the child, the biological connection offers the reassurance of extra parental love and keeps the door open for questions of developing and understanding personal identity. However, in Caroline Leavitt's new novel, "Girls in Trouble," open adoption proves far more appealing in theory than in practice. Leavitt's moving portrait, which follows a girl through the birth of her daughter and into adulthood, proves an intriguing examination of the nature of family, with all its emotional undercurrents and mercurial complexities.

Sara is a high school honors student of 16 when she finds herself pregnant by her first real boyfriend, the darkly beautiful and mysterious Danny, who promises, "I'll never be with anyone else but you. . . . You're the first thing I've ever gotten right."

Danny expands the sheltered Sara's world, and the two innocently dream of a charmed future together -- until Sara gets pregnant. Danny urges Sara to "take care of it," but when she balks, he quits school and seems to vanish overnight. His family turns Sara away without a backward glance.

Sara's parents are unwilling to let her keep and raise the baby, but they are also against the open adoption. They plead for a traditional arrangement, with no contact between mother and child, which they believe will allow Sara to make a fresh start. "Sara's a 16-year-old girl who should be allowed to forget," maintains Sara's mother, Abby, who grew up in an era in which unwed mothers were denigrated as "girls in trouble."

However, Sara can't bear the thought of completely losing her baby. Leavitt writes, "As terrifying as it was to contemplate having a baby, giving it away was like giving away a part of Danny. She had to have some contact, some connection, or she'd be undone."

When an adoption agency hooks Sara up with Eva and George, an older couple who are desperate for a child and more than willing to take Sara's baby on her terms, the setup seems ideal. Sara takes to the couple immediately, and they in turn become genuinely fond of Sara. They insist she will always be a part of the family, that her baby is not a mistake but a miracle. They give Sara all the love and support her own family, in their quiet disapproval and concern, cannot quite muster.

The first clue that all might not end happily comes moments after childbirth, when the doctor places the baby in Sara's arms and she names her Roseann. Quickly, an oblivious (or perhaps slightly conniving) Eva scoops up the baby and promptly rechristens her Anne. Thus begins the insidious push-pull that eventually shatters them all.

As Sara's maternal instincts seem to grow stronger with each passing day, Eva feels less sure of her own mothering abilities, threatened by the biological bond that she will never share with her child. As Eva tries to pull away, taking Anne with her, Sara grasps to hold on to her daughter in whatever ways she can. Their ultimate clash is at the heart of the novel's dramatic core.

Leavitt, a Boston Globe columnist with seven other novels to her credit, has a sharp ear for dialogue and descriptive details. The young Sara is a vibrant character -- bright, passionate, conflicted, and hopelessly naive. Then the story fast-forwards rather perfunctorily, and Sara as a grown woman is less convincing. We've missed too much in between. The teenage Anne is rather one-dimensional, and some of the peripheral characters are also elusive.

However, as they all try to come to terms with the rich emotional cauldron of their lives, the feelings they spark are familiar and resonant. "Girls in Trouble" deftly and poignantly charts the slow erosion of familial ties and the lengths to which love and desperation can drive us all.

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