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Friday, September 10, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
A little girl who's seen too much brings generations together

By Valerie Ryan
Special to The Seattle Times

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"Everybody's mother is good at something. Her mother's good at finding the same man, no matter where she lives." So goes the thinking of Griff, 9-½-year-old daughter of Jean, a single mom with the unerring eye for the bad man — one like trailer-trash Roy, who will beat her up at night and in the morning say: "Tell me we're still in love."

This time, Griff tells her mother, "You promised. You promised after the next time it happened we'd go. That's what you said."

"An Unfinished Life" (Knopf, 257 pp., $23) is the story of one going-nowhere woman with bad judgment trying to save her life and make a better life for her daughter. Novelist Mark Spragg has brought to life four people: Jean, Griff, Einar, who is Jean's former father-in-law, and Mitch, old friend and Korean war buddy of Einar's, now crippled as the result of a bear attack.

Author appearance

Mark Spragg will read from "An Unfinished Life," 7:30 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or

Jean keeps her promise to Griff and starts driving, with no destination in mind. She is desperate for someplace to light, and when their car breaks down, she and Griff eventually fetch up on the front stoop of Einar's house in Ishawooa, Wyo. Einar doesn't know he has a granddaughter, because he stopped speaking to Jean when she and his son Griffin were in a car accident that killed Griffin. He holds Jean responsible and hates her for it. His only reason for living is that Mitch can't survive without him.

The quartet thrown together by circumstance tries warily to work out a way of staying together, by fits and starts. Griff is at the heart of everything good that happens between and among the four, but as long as Jean remains an outsider, Griff knows that she is on shaky ground. Any day her mother might take off for another man, another trailer, another beating. Roy's reappearance serves as the catalyst which offers the promise of reconciliation and a real homecoming.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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