Genius, says 23-year-old Kara Bell, who fits the going definition, has lost its meaning. "It used to be this spirit that accompanied you everywhere and kind of buzzed in your ear — like a dragonfly, I always pictured — looking out for you, telling you what to do in any situation." Kara, like it or not, embodies the sort of genius she laments, the wry yet deeply sweet spirit of Thomas Rayfiel's novel.

Kara has come home from the heady study of philosophy "Up North" to the little town of Witch's Falls, Ark., in hope of finding a bone marrow match to keep her recently routed cancer at bay. This means finding the blood relatives of her dead father, whose whereabouts — even existence — are a mystery, and one her mother is not about to unravel.

That's the plan, but meanwhile Kara finds herself sinking into the rhythms of small-town life, revisiting the nursing home where she built her résumé, getting high under the bleachers with a teenage outlier, meddling in the confusing love life of her younger brother, reconnecting with the tart beauty who stirred her adolescent passion, taking part in a Civil War re-enactment (out of a sort of civic lethargy) and dealing with the consequences of her liaison with an aged professor.

It sounds wacky, even bizarre, but unspooling in Kara's slyly comical straightforward narration, it also seems perfectly reasonable. Smart and funny and mildly stunned by her appearance in a small-town drama that her whole brief life has been dedicated to transcending, Kara is a close sister to Eve, a character who starred in three of Rayfiel's earlier novels, beginning with "Colony Girl," perhaps the best known.

With the gloss of philosophy to elevate some of her observations, she is that truly interesting creation, a real person searching for meaning as she goes through the natural or "normal" motions.

"Why is everyone so weird?" she says. "How is it that, despite my strenuous attempts to defy convention, I alone am left to define normal?"

What's remarkable in "Genius" is Rayfiel's ability to sharply depict and undermine the conventional at once, to make the normal at once utterly familiar, hilariously weird and heartbreakingly poignant — like life.

Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin.