What Girls Learn

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

WHAT GIRLS LEARN opens with an epigraph from Alice Munro: “...treachery is the other side of dailiness,” and the novel follows this theme of change and the unexpected and unwanted. As the story opens, Tilden, age twelve, and Elizabeth, a year younger, have had their mother solely to themselves all their lives. They have moved often, with their mother always hopeful and the girls always finding the apartments less than promised. Now Frances takes her two daughters from Atlanta to New York’s Long Island to live with Nick Olsen, a man the girls have never met.

Before they have much chance to adjust, Frances is found to have breast cancer, and despite a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy treatments, the cancer persists. She and Nick marry and Nick becomes the legal guardian for the girls. Nick, Tilden, Elizabeth, Frances’s brother, “Uncle Rand,” and a friend, Lainey, care for Frances at home through her terminal illness.

In addition to the simple but compelling plot, what carries the reader throughout the novel is author Karin Cook’s remarkably evocative language and her thoroughness in capturing the mind and emotions of the narrator, Tilden, who has all the adolescent worries and concerns in addition to her concern for her mother. What Tilden has, ultimately, is her close relationship with her sister and what together they have been forced to learn about living with impermanence and sorrow as well as trying to live with the hopefulness and kindness that always characterized their mother.