Into thin air with lipstick

Leaving the scary wilderness of family life for some peace and quiet

Henry David Thoreau went to suck the marrow out of life. Young Goodman Brown went to confront the devil. Little Red Riding Hood went to see her grandmother with those big teeth. Everybody's got a good reason for going into the woods.

Hannah Blue, the heroine in Gwendolen Gross's charming new novel, just needs to get away. For her, at first, the woods aren't anything but somewhere else – somewhere away from her stressful job, her neurotic family, and her perfect boyfriend.

"Getting Out" follows that old American tradition afforded by all this glorious empty land – an invigorating place to reinvent oneself, a tempting escape from domestic responsibility, a terrifying challenge to test one's mettle. But Gross has feminized this national myth in a way that reminds us that Huck Finn was just a boy and Rabbit Angstrom was just unbearable.

When Hannah Blue finds some photographs of rock climbers at the copy machine, the first thing she notices is that "no one looked tired or worried," even though they're "gripping the thinnest sliver of rock." A woman in the office invites her to join the Adventurers' Club, and though it sounds suspiciously like Hannah's biggest bugaboo – commitment – she signs up for a trip to the Adirondacks.

She had "pictured a dazzle of foliage and hot chocolate by an ember-rich campfire, a star-punctured arc of night sky," but it's been a long time since Hannah has been in actual woods wearing an actual backpack. "Autumn leaves were very lovely from the passenger seat of a car," she notes, "but underfoot they were simply more stuff in the way of my boots." She spends the first hard day telling herself that if she survives, she'll never do this again.

Her fellow hikers are virile, vibrant people who have the right clothing and know how to use a compass. She hates them all. But when she finally limps back home feeling like the doormat at a public library, she can't wait to go back.

Despite the aches and pains of the trail, home is more uncomfortable. Her demanding boss at an interior-design company in Boston has no sympathy for Hannah's artistic aspirations. Her needy sister has entered yet another bad relationship (this time with an aloof hand model). Her manipulative father has announced that he's dying – again. And her boyfriend, Ben, wants to get married. Faced with those terrors, hanging from a rock by her fingertips sounds relaxing.

The field of insipid books laid out for women readers this season makes me hesitate to say it, but Gross has written a light summer novel in the best sense. Her voice shimmers with wit without drooping to the easy sarcasm that too often passes for humor in these books. Hannah's anxieties are grounded in matters of life and death, but there's a hopefulness in this story you can trust.

At 25, Hannah displays all the trappings of a mature, liberated woman, but deep down she knows she's been putting off the complicated work of growing up. When her father's latest fatal illness turns out to be real, she has to develop a new way to acknowledge his manipulative nature and her desperate need for his approval without sacrificing her love for him.

Meanwhile, it's getting harder and harder to rebuff proposals from her sensitive, successful boyfriend. He's eager to start a family, but she wants to go into thin air. (How's that for a change of gender roles?)

Gross captures the erotic freshness of woods and avid outdoorsmen with perfect clarity. Hannah's forest buddies revel in the kind of freedom and ambiguous sexuality that makes mortgages and diaper bags look like a slow death. During a ski trip in Vermont, she says, "I realized I didn't know where I was, and it filled me with a plain kind of pleasure, almost fear." And there's the best part: Gross dares to wander off the path and explore the dark underbrush of this temptation to abandon the ones we love, the ones who need us. At the climax of the novel, Hannah finds herself drawn into a kind of emotional anorexia that threatens her life.

By the end, though, she can't keep the city and the forest separate, and she realizes that the either/or choice is a false one. The marriage of these two minds has just the right touch of serendipity. If you're lighting out for the territory this summer, Gross is a reliable guide to take along.

• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

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