Talk show

Normal Girl

Molly Jong-Fast <em>Sceptre, 320pp £10</em>

ISBN 0340748109

Molly Jong-Fast, daughter of the feminist author Erica Jong, began smoking cannabis at the age of 13. A bulimic teenager, she soon moved on to LSD, alcohol, sleeping pills, diet pills and cocaine. She recently said that "the story of my life was all very talk-show topics: eating disorder, alcoholism and children of famous people". No surprise, then, that the 20-year-old's first novel is about a young Jewish princess's descent into addiction hell and recovery, although she denies that it is completely autobiographical.

Miranda Woke is a bored little rich girl living on the Upper East Side of New York. Her mother is an emotionally brittle socialite; her father has a new wife who is almost Miranda's tender age. She is surrounded by rich, drug-abusing friends.

The novel opens with Miranda, as high as a kite, attending the funeral of an ex-boyfriend, Jeff, whom she thinks she accidentally killed. Mourners are not mourning, but rather checking out each other's accessories and bitching with crocodile smiles.

Jong-Fast is a precise observer. A model "looks like a refugee, but is the new calf for Calvin clam diggers"; in her funeral address, Jeff's sister "waxes Upper East Side Melrose Place". When her best friend, Janice, shoots heroin, Miranda confesses that she secretly likes "watching the life come back into her features: white lips go pink, cheeks rose up, then her eyes recognise me again".

Miranda reserves a lot of bile for her mother, filtered through a hatred of her clothes and decorating taste. Her palatial town house is themed by city and region: "The Western Room even smelled of horse shit." Miranda's father is so absent that she accidentally meets him at a glitzy launch only to be told that she isn't on the guest list. Away from the chippy Sex and the City-style chatter, Jong-Fast paints an unbearable portrait of drug addiction, empty friendships and loveless sex.

The darkest and most unflinching sequence merges day into night, as Miranda undertakes her most sustained and self- destructive drink and drugs binge. There is a crazy car journey, a blur of parties and lavatories and late-night stores; parts of her body are mysteriously spattered in blood. She then goes to New York's premier "coke-snorting bathroom", where she shoots some heroin, sees Jeff's dead face, his skin "white as horse bones".

Eventually, she is packed off to a Minnesota clinic, her substance abuse at an end. Yet the very lack of detail - grey walls, whey-faced patients, stolid nurses - and physical inertia of the drying-out clinic fatally slows the narrative as recovery rhetoric predominates.

It is only when Miranda returns to New York that her voice regains its edge. But Jong-Fast's observations on Miranda's drug and alcohol dependency are sharper, cleverer and more self-aware than the stuff about her new, clean life. Perhaps for the author it was hard to evoke fully the rigours of sobriety having not so long ago exorcised the demons of addiction.

Tim Teeman works on the Times