The Anatomy Lesson

By Nina Siegal. (Nan A. Talese/Doubletree, 271 pages, $25.95.)

Even though, like many word people, I enjoyed "The Girl With the Pearl Earring," I swore off reading books about paintings. I made an exception for "The Anatomy Lesson." And I'm glad I did.

Set in what's considered the Dutch Golden Age (the early 1600s), the novel, Siegal's first, crafts a compelling story behind one of Rembrandt's best-known paintings. Told through the voices and letters of several distinct characters (including a thief, a curio collector, philosopher René Descartes and the painter himself), the book manages to bring a small slice of history to life while telling a tale about the thirst for knowledge, the quest for status and enduring love.

Connie Nelson

Senior editor for lifestyles

All We Had

By Annie Weatherwax. (Scribner, 272 pages, $24.)

By the time she was 13, Ruthie knew how it went: Her mother, Rita, would use her good looks to latch on to a man. They would move in with him until Rita could no longer stomach the man, then they would steal his stuff and move on.

Still, what Rita lacked in providing consistency she made up in love for Ruthie. No matter where they landed, Ruthie went to school each day, and Rita was certain Ruthie would attend college at Harvard.

Predictably, in "All We Had," their car breaks down on one escape, and the pair finds themselves in a small town named Fat River. Here they not only find a home but family. Rita is hired as a waitress at a diner, and it seems everyone in town adopts Ruthie as their own. Peter Pam, the transgender waitress, becomes Ruthie's friend and protector; Miss Frankfurt, school principal, sees Ruthie's potential and challenges her to excel; Hank and Dotty Hanson, the elderly owners of the hardware store, fix her rattletrap bike and give her cookies. Each of these characters, and Ruthie most of all, finds a place in the reader's heart. You want to pull up a stool and meet them. It's a wonderful debut novel, in turn humorous and gut-wrenching. Don't miss it.

Judy Romanowich Smith

Freelance writer