''To mother'' is a very different verb from ''to father.'' It means, says the dictionary, ''to watch over, nourish, and protect,'' activities which are expected of all women and which women therefore expect of themselves.
Meet intrepid Dana Cogan, who has moved out of her parents' South Philadelphia home into a house of her own in a vain attempt to escape such expectations: ''They call me, all three of them (Irv, my father; Alan, my brother; and Millie, my mother) whenever they're near a telephone. I am a resident on call in my own house, a one-woman SWAT team, a 24-hour hot line. Only my mother, whose calls are never really intrusive but necessary for the preservation of her sanity, do I treat with reverence. And compassion.''
Dana's father and brother are, to put it mildly, eccentric. Twenty years earlier her father injured his back and he hasn't worked since then, studying Oriental philosophy instead. At age 29, her brother is still an adolescent, a particularly revolting one whose antisocial behavior is explained by a counselor as rebellion against ''the reversal of roles within the family structure.''
After learning this diagnosis, Dana's father asks, ''Doesn't anyone think he's crazy?'' Dana observes that her father ''had just invested in two dozen sets of chopsticks and a complete Japanese tea service. Fine one he was to be questioning anyone's sanity.''
For the past 20 years Dana's mother has supported the family, working as a manicurist at Bonwit Teller, an artist with her bottles of Mauve Marvel and Passion Plum.
Dana herself is also an artist, a painter with painter's block who works for a graphic-design agency. The men in her life are a successful sculptor who is more a best friend than a lover and an elusive hardware store owner who can't seem to get divorced.
Dana has been renovating her decrepit row house, and now she decides to renovate her family, too. But as her house renovations are hampered by break-ins by a robber who does her breakfast dishes before he steals her tools, so is her family project thwarted. Her mother refuses to leave home and start a new life.
When Dana cleans out her parents' basement so her mother can at least have the sewing room she's always wanted, her father and brother lug their junk right back in. Her brother also threatens to sue their mother for the $2,000 she has saved in trust for him.
And then, under mysterious circumstances, her mother falls downstairs and dies. Dana has no mother to mother anymore. Grief-stricken, grimly determined, she moves back home to look after the father and brother she hates, trying to bring order to their chaos of soap operas, Fritos, and tantrums. But although she returns ''to seek a sort of revenge on Irv and Alan, wanting to pin them down in their grief,'' she gradually begins to grope toward love for them.
This is a vigorous, spirited first novel, both funny and touching in its examination of the rigors of family life.