ONE GOOD HUSTLE by Billie Livingston (Random House), 271 pages, $22.95 paper. Rating: NNNN
All her life, Sammie's parents have exercised their finely honed skills as con artists, often involving their daughter in the action.
By the time Sammie's 16, on the heels of a scam gone wrong, her dad, Sam, has gone AWOL and her mum, Marlene, has sunk into an alcoholic stupor. In desperation, she runs away to her friend Jill's house, where she's welcomed by Jill's very stable parents. They're so kind, Sammie's almost disgusted by them.
That's the crux of Billie Livingstone's very involving One Good Hustle. Sammie defines "care" as being hidden in a box by her dad so she can help him rip off a few antiques. (The cons, by the way, are invariably fascinating.)
Livingstone portrays Sammie's internal conflict with devastating precision. Her protagonist is particularly flummoxed by nice Christian guy Drew. He likes her, so there must be something wrong with him.
To the author's credit, the novel doesn't go to the place of extremes. Just describing how Marlene's negligence makes Sammie vulnerable to a few creepy guys is enough to convey the extent to which Sammie's at risk. Piling on the trauma isn't necessary.
In this book about love, it's clear that kids often adore their crappy parents, regardless of anything they do. Sammie's relationship with her dad is a never-ending series of disappointments, but she can't get enough of him.
Her connection to her mother is the most heartbreaking. With deep compassion, Livingstone develops a complex character in Marlene - once a shameless grifter, now a horrifyingly hammered juicer, always a loving mother.
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