“This Is How I Find Her”

by Sara Polsky, Albert Whitman & Company, 2013, 260 pages, $16.99.

This first novel by Sara Polsky charts the path of an adolescent as she sorts through what life has dealt her and how she will respond. Intended as a book for young adult readers, “This Is How I Find Her” is one of those lucky reads that holds lessons for us all.

For five years, Sophie Canon has been sole caregiver for her mother, an artist who suffers from bipolar disorder. The medication her mother takes leaves her with unsteady hands often unable to hold paintbrushes, and wholly dependent on her daughter.

Sophie keeps the apartment she shares with her mother in order. She leaves for school each morning as soon as she reminds her mother to take her medication and rushes home each day to make sure dinner is on the table. The arduous arrangement doesn’t allow for her to have friends, or a life, of her own.

After finding her mother unresponsive from an overdose of medication, Sophie is taken in by her aunt, her mother’s only sibling, while mother recovers in hospital for a few weeks.

And so begins Sophie’s journey toward a life that is “a little more like everyone else’s.” That journey isn’t easy. The tentativeness of her relationship with her Aunt Cynthia and cousin Leila, her hesitation to return to school, and especially the guilt she feels over her new independence, make for hard times for Sophie.

But not every moment, for the pleasure of the book is in its rendering of the quiet kindnesses afforded her: A caring doctor keeps her apprised of her mother’s progress, Uncle John helps her realize an affinity for architecture, new friends accept her tentativeness. And then there’s James, a young man who seems rather taken with her.

It all culminates in a school project that is a sensitive blend of what initially seem to be disparate plot strands. Sophie movingly recognizes the need for family in all its variations, discovering that no matter what life doles out, “the only thing we can really do with these unexpected visitors is open the door and welcome them in.” That’s the lesson Sara Polsky has for adolescent Sophie — and, hopefully, for us all.

Steven Whitton is an English professor at Jacksonville State University.