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In her best-selling book Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman writes that “All daughters—and motherless ones are no exception—expect mothers to pass down the generational knowledge that transforms a girl into a woman.” What Girls Learn, the debut novel by 28-year-old health educator Karin Cook, explores the power that these girlhood expectations hold to either shelter faith or shatter trust, especially in the face of unexpected tragedy.

The story is narrated by Tilden Burbank, a precocious adolescent who questions everything. Except, of course, the strength of her relationships with the only family she has ever known: Frances, her ever-optimistic mother, and Elizabeth, her outspoken younger sister, closest companion, and interminable rival.

“Making the world appear better,” Tilden tells us, “was Mama’s specialty. Not the whole world, necessarily, but our world. Every time she moved us, it was always to some place better than the last. But the new place was never quite as she said it would be. The art gallery in downtown Atlanta turned out to be a makeshift basement studio in a darkroom that smelled of vinegar. And the mansion in Lawrenceville was really a garage apartment at the edge of an estate. We lived bunched up alongside other people’s expanses, close enough to dream.”

Despite this constant shuttling from apartment to apartment and the absence of a father, the Burbanks have created a world that defines itself solely through their love for one another. This threatens to change when Frances attends a friend’s wedding and falls in love-at-first-sight with Nick Olsen, the handsome proprietor of a New York car service. Within weeks, Frances uproots her family from Atlanta to Long Island to live with Nick.

Predictably, the relocation rips their lives apart. The girls are frightened by the prospect of having to share their mother’s affections with a stranger. Elizabeth, however, takes a quick liking to Nick, and with good reason: His home is spacious enough to allow each girl to have her own room. He slides naturally into the role of father, always there to help with homework, never raising his voice. He is kind and generous—almost to a fault. The man just seems too good to be true. And because of this, Tilden cannot bring herself to trust him.

“What I disliked,” she reveals, “was how distracted Mama had become, as if there wasn’t room in her for all of us.” After Frances is admitted to the hospital for a radical mastectomy, Tilden and Elizabeth realize that the true source of their mother’s distraction is cancer. After the surgery, Frances returns home, but she never quite goes back to being herself. Soon they begin to understand that the disease is claiming more than Frances’ body: It is claiming their time, their patience, their hope.

“There are times when Elizabeth and I fight senselessly, without reason or result—a blind rage that stems from loneliness. In these fights, there is no room for compromise. We fight to feel something instead of loss. The way only sisters can fight—with the luxury of forever and forgiveness at hand. It is in conflict that we come closest to the selves we once were.”

The problem one generally encounters with novels narrated from a child’s point of view is that they rarely ring true. Writers either underestimate the intelligence of children or overestimate the grace and maturity with which they can confront traumatic situations. Fortunately for her readers, Cook manages to escape these pitfalls. Her writing is like poetry: potent, rich with details and images. It is honest and straightforward. She doesn’t hide the messages in her story behind long, flowery sentences. Neither does she sacrifice the beauty of well-crafted language.

Tilden and Elizabeth are as real as any American girls under the influence of puberty. They spend their time swapping clothes and secrets, bashfully flirting with boys in fast cars. Occasionally, their voices do contain a sophistication that seems a bit too adult for their ages, but certainly not for their circumstances.

The novel’s adult characters are not nearly as complex or well-developed as the children. Nick, for example, comes across as a one-dimensional good guy. We never get an opportunity to fully understand him or the motivations for his actions. And Frances, though likable, remains somewhat peripheral. Because she becomes ill almost at the start of the story, we know very little of the person she was, and she is thus defined simply through her suffering.

But these shortcomings seem insignificant compared with the novel’s accomplishments. Exploring illnesses and the devastating effects they have on a family is a challenging feat. Cook has written, with dignity, aplomb, and humor about a topic that is usually shrouded in silence and melodrama. CP