May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

by Karin Cook

Ask any woman if she would want to be 12 again, and the answer would probably be no. It is an undeniably awkward age, characterized by braces, training bras and heart-shattering crushes. For Tilden, the narrator in Cook’s poignant first novel, adolescence proves to be more traumatic than usual.

Tilden’s teen years start inauspiciously when her divorced mother relocates the family from Atlanta to boyfriend Nick’s Long Island, N.Y., home. The move creates unforeseen challenges for the shy 12-year-old and her younger sister Elizabeth. Besides arriving in a small town in the middle of the school year, Tilden must adjust to living with Nick. Good intentions notwithstanding, he is the reason why her mother is so distracted, “as if there wasn’t room in her for all of us.” For the next two years, Tilden tries to navigate her new surroundings, making friends, attending sex education class and having her first flirtation.

These intimate, carefully rendered moments of teenage life provide a needed balance to the downward emotional spiral the novel takes when Tilden and her sister learn their mother has breast cancer. With her mother ill, Tilden reaches her 14th birthday feeling largely alone.

In What Girls Learn, Cook skillfully captures the stumbling steps young girls take toward adulthood and describes the need they have for mothers during these often painful years. (Pantheon, $23)

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