September 23, 2002 12:00 PM

By Lee Smith

In 1965, 12 classmates at a fictitious Virginia women’s college floated down the Mississippi on a raft. In 1999 four of “the girls” reunite on a luxury steamboat to retrace their journey, but with a more somber mission: to scatter the ashes of glamorous Baby, the instigator of the original trip.

Sounds like a floating Big Chill for the HRT set, but Smith delivers a nimble narrative that loops back and forth from the present to the 1960s, when southern girls were expected to bag a husband along with a B.A. Sprinkled throughout are such gems as “There are no grown-ups—this is the big, dirty secret that no one ever tells you.” Best of all is Smith’s mischievous humor. A scene in which a couple discuss recovering from prostate surgery—over dinner with strangers—is by itself worth the cover price. (Algonquin, $24.95)

Bottom Line: Delightful cruise

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