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Coming of age can mean discovering a new self, or at least a new way of being. For Cindy Stoat, it means literally assuming a new identity. In her case, she becomes Jude Vanderjohn, an older local girl who has gone missing in Sarah Elaine Smith’s stunningly evocative debut novel, “Marilou Is Everywhere.”

As Cindy recounts, her problems began before Jude disappeared, although they seemed inconsequential at the time. “Before that summer, the things that happened to me were air and water and just as see-thru,” the book’s 14-year-old narrator explains. “My life was an empty place.”

In her impressionistic narrative, in which people are “buttered from sweat”  and oncoming cars are announced by “the growl shifting up the gravel like thunder, or a rumor, or someone about to shout,”  Cindy describes living with her dysfunctional family in their hardscrabble Pennsylvania town of Deep Valley. The setting is nearly Gothic: Her mother has disappeared, as she has before, leaving the 14-year-old to fend for herself, nominally in the care of two older brothers — their various fathers having hardly ever been in the picture. The three get by on canned goods and handouts, until her brothers, both older teens, finally find work mowing lawns.

But it’s a vulnerable life, at best, and Cindy is largely drifting, until the day when she sees her oldest brother, Virgil, kissing Jude, whom he playfully calls “Marilou.” Their romance — the passion, the attachment, as much as the sexuality — is the first sign that life can hold more than mere survival, and Virgil’s pet name for his girlfriend is the key. “She became that other girl, and it lit her up, and that is what I wanted,” Cindy says.

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Cindy gets her chance after Jude disappears while on a camping trip with her friends. Jude’s mother, Bernadette, an alcoholic ex-hippie, is known to weave in and out of reality, and, with her daughter missing, Virgil starts dropping by to check in on her. (Bernadette’s ex-husband, Jude’s father, supports Bernadette, but fathers don’t count for much in this book.) When Cindy is nearly raped by her middle brother, Clinton, Virgil begins bringing her along. Although Cindy is ostensibly there to help Virgil clean — Bernadette is a bit of a hoarder — she soon realizes that the days go more easily when she lets the confused woman address her as Jude. Black hair dye and Jude’s old eyeglasses further the risky masquerade.

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Essentially feral, Cindy stops going to school. But in Bernadette’s house, she garners an education, albeit in a haphazard fashion. The former flower child may be delusional, but she came from an affluent background. Her house is full of books (which Cindy has always loved) as well as other wonders like opera recordings and soy sauce (which she has never tasted). In her quest to become Jude, Cindy takes it all in, providing an unsentimental and unadorned appraisal of life, class differences, and the crazy ways that people relate.

In Smith’s hands, Cindy’s acute observations capture the classism and casual racism of their poor town. When Jude’s father, who is African-American and apparently comfortably middle class, comes to town to aid the search for Jude, his casual query about Wi-Fi sets a local shopkeeper off on a confused, racist mini-rant. “Can you believe it?,” she asks. “Wi-fi password. Huh. I didn’t know you could get internet on an Obama phone. Just not fancy enough, are we, Cindy? Nobody ever gave me a damn thing, that’s for sure.”

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What strikes Cindy is the flier Jude’s father leaves, offering a $50,000 reward. “I had only heard about that amount of money on a game show,” she says. “It seemed pretend, like Jet Skis or a brand-new car.”

At times, the narrative veers into more sophisticated territory, stretching the credibility of Cindy as a narrator: “Somebody saw a bear every summer, although often, once they had sobered, they demoted it to catamount or coyote,” Cindy notes, adding that Bernadette, “laid traps desultory and literal: a plate of honey sandwiches on a stump in the side yard.”

This is more the vocabulary of Smith, a poet as well as a novelist, than that of the then still self-educating Cindy. However, such poetic phrasings work, perhaps because sound as well as meaning contribute so much to a depiction of poverty and insularity that wouldn’t be out of place in the books of Laurel Groff or Tim Gautreaux. Or perhaps the author is hinting at a broader future for Cindy.

After all, the girl’s assumed identity is always as tenuous as her family’s survival. And as the mystery of Jude’s disappearance resolves, Cindy finds herself back in her old life. But the Cindy who returns has changed, and if the way forward is unclear, at least she ends her adventure with some insight.

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“I do not care to stand in the doorway of myself, making a list of punishments,” she tells us, in a typically straightforward, and yet figurative assessment. “I’m the kind that has to get empty somehow. I tried all the other ways.” With that in mind, she carries on, leaving us transformed as well.

MARILOU IS EVERYWHERE

By Sarah Elaine Smith

Riverhead Books, 288 pp., $26


Clea Simon’s most recent novel is “A Spell of Murder.” She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.