The typical literary heroine of today performs extreme, often unflattering acrobatics to get our attention and sympathy. Maybe because of competition from racy tell-all memoirists, novelists no longer feel it's enough to introduce a thoughtful, dignified grown-up female with a few life-size problems. Instead, we get frazzled little girls dating Mr. Wrong and bingeing on Haagen-Dazs to prove how vulnerable and lovable they are. We're treated to sagas of childhood sexual abuse and ever more extravagant domestic and romantic crises. One of the chiefdelights of Rachel Cline's lovely, understated debut What to Keep is her smart, self-respecting heroine Denny Roman, who never clamors for attention. And thereby earns it.
''What to Keep'' begins in 1976 in suburban Ohio, where Denny's chilly but well-meaning neuroscientist mother, Lily, has just begun a discreet affair with a much younger colleague named Phil. Recently divorced, Lily delegates much of 12-year-old Denny's care to her personal assistant, Maureen, and ''thinks of herself as a person who moves on with a quick step and considers retrospection a form of self-indulgence that requires far too much time.'' Could there be a less suitable parent for Denny? She's a budding drama queen in a J. Geils Band T-shirt who admires the hairdos on ''Welcome Back, Kotter'' and vamps her way through the school production of ''Damn Yankees'' -- which Lily never even turns up to see.
Cut to 1990. Denny, now a struggling actress in Los Angeles (''the balmy, palm-tree studded version of hell''), flies to Ohio to help her mother, now married to Phil, clean out her childhood home before Lily moves to New York. Unsentimental to a fault, Lily has arranged to sell Denny's old records at a garage sale. She can't understand why Denny is so irritated by the loss of Bananarama albums or so excited about an upcoming meeting with Robert Altman.
When Lily stumbles across her daughter's diary lying open on a bed, she is too principled -- or is it dispassionate? -- to snoop, even after a furtive glance reveals ''not only the pattern of 'Lily's on the page but also certain other words that would jump out of the jumble to anyone's eye. Words like 'death,' 'rage,' and 'bitch,' for example.'' It's typical of Lily's emotional restraint and Cline's authorial subtlety that this background detail is allowed to remain just that. Diaries overflowing with unkind descriptions of Mom can be found in almost every attic in America; why make too much of it?
Another decade later, Lily and Denny, now a writer, are both living in New York. Luke, the adolescent son of Lily's former assistant Maureen, unexpectedly turns up on Denny's doorstep, looking for a new home. The book's finale -- encompassing the production of Denny's first play, Lily's appropriately enthusiastic response, and the rounding out of their stunted family with the addition of Luke and a new love for Denny -- may seem a bit too sugary for such a crisp, tart piece of fiction. But you wish Denny a happy ending. Rather than a goal-oriented obstacle course set up by an ambitious, insecure author, this sparkling novel reads like a stubbornly particular and difficult life story.