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'70s teen dips a toe into sex and drugs

Jessica Anya Blau's novel overcomes steep odds. You open the book and wonder whether you can get through yet another semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale from a first-time novelist; you finish the book wishing it were twice as long. It's hard to recall a debut as warm, charming and comically satisfying as "The Summer of Naked Swim Parties."

Set in Santa Barbara in 1976, the novel tells of 14-year-old Jamie's eventful summer, including her sexual awakening, a first encounter with death, dizzying swings between "popular" and "unpopular" status, conflict with an older sister who insists on calling her "Farrah," binge-eating, reluctant experiments with drugs and alcohol, and a memorable date at the drive-in watching "Mother, Jugs & Speed."

Blau conveys Jamie's world with compelling insight and wit. Early in the novel - before she gets a boyfriend of her own - Jamie and her friends entertain some boys at the house while Jamie's parents are away. Before the boys arrive, the girls run upstairs to get dressed: "Each outfit they tried on was neither better nor worse than the one they had previously been wearing; the act of changing was simply an act of momentum."

Nothing serious happens that night, but for Jamie a transformation has taken place:

"The pool didn't look the same after the pizza boys had swum in it. It wasn't that it was bigger or smaller; the embedded boulders still looked like dead, limbless elephants; the thatched-roof bar still had a strange stage-set feel to it; and the red phone hidden under the weightless, fake rock still seemed funny to Jamie, as if Maxwell Smart would show up any minute and use the phone to call Agent 99. What was different was the water and air. Before it had just been water and air. But now it was imbued with something slippery, something pungent, something that snaked up and down her legs like an invisible finger. The pool was now, Jamie finally decided, sexy."

Her loving parents are Jewish, nudist pot-smokers of such easygoing spontaneity that, when vacationing at Yosemite, they befriend a hippie named Dog Feather and bring him back to Santa Barbara to live with them for a while. They also believe in treating Jamie as an adult. Set to go out on her first date, she inquires about her curfew and her father affectionately responds, "Jesus, Jamie ... you're fourteen years old now. You can keep track of yourself." She suggests waking her parents up when she returns so they know she got home safely, but her mother says, "Honey, you woke us enough when you were a baby." Such latitude has its rewards, but Jamie, whose summer is one rite of passage after another, longs for the dull comforts that a more conventional home would provide.

The date in question, Flip Jenkins, is a beautiful 17-year-old surfer dude of rather helpless vapidity. It's a good measure of Blau's skill that she takes what could easily be a tired stereotype and instead fashions a comic creation of vivid complexity. After weeks of inner debate, Jamie decides to lose her virginity with Flip one night on the beach, a task he accepts with a mixture of attempted maturity and puppyish glee: "Flip positioned himself on top of Jamie and said, 'Okay, I'm totally going to do it now, I love you.' " Needless to say, the sex is anti-climactic, especially at the beginning.

Blau strains a bit in the novel's concluding chapters; each ends with the prose equivalent of a freeze-frame meant to emphasize that, despite all of the household's tension and quarrels, this is one close family. Such gravity-seeking sentimentality suggests an inexperienced author who does not fully recognize her strengths, because well before these over-crafted moments her sharp observation and affectionate humor have already given surprising depth to this shimmering novel.