During the 1950s, in a car, on the floor, in an alley, the vulnerable, tough-minded narrator is born. ("The very thought of it gives me contractions", her mother says.) The last of four laughters, she grows up in the wake of tragedy -- her sister's death by drowning -- under the authority of her mother's ideas of proper cleanliness, posture, and feminine destiny. Never fulfilling expectations, she makes a doomed marriage and suffers a breakdown, but gradually her own voice emerges, one that has negotiated her mother's ideas of the feminine with her own rebellion. She must raise her own daughter and once again face the mysteries of her mother's feminine arts. "I've been around", she says, "and seen the Taj Majal and the Grand Canyon and Marilyn Monroe's footprints outside Grauman's Chinese, but I've never seen my mother wash her own hair".