The host of Carolyn Parkhurst's fictional reality-TV show, the Amazing Race-esque Lost And Found, asks each departing team, "You've lost the game—but what have you found?" Savvy viewers know exactly what the contestants are supposed to learn about themselves; they're cast for maximum pathos, comedy, or self-delusion. In Lost And Found, former child stars, "cured" homosexuals, brothers rebounding from failed marriages, reunited high-school sweethearts, and a mother-teen daughter team compete in a globetrotting game show for a million dollars and whatever self-realization they can wring out of its scripted, massaged, fame-grubbing premise. In her second novel, Lost And Found, Parkhurst slams the reality-TV formula to the mat, getting every on- and off-camera detail hilariously right. But her stories and her characters' voices—perfectly pitched to deliver insight without cheap sentiment—soar above the setting, creating one of the summer's best reads.

Lost And Found's narration rotates among most of the contestants and the show's ice-queen host. But the story is really about Laura, a widow trying to reconnect with her teenage daughter Cassie. Laura believes they were cast because of typical mother-daughter alienation, but she harbors a private reason for entering the contest: After a secret pregnancy and a horrific home birth, Cassie put her baby up for adoption, exposing their relationship as far more broken than Laura thought. Cassie, however, has told the producers about the baby, and the cameramen hover, waiting for someone to snap and reveal it on the air. Meanwhile, Cassie is keeping her own secret from the show—her closeted lesbianism—but child star Juliet, vying for more camera time, encourages Cassie to fall in love with her.

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Lost And Found blows the lid off the inherent ridiculousness of game operas, from the edited-out downtime while participants wait for transportation to the product placements and cheesy challenge themes. (After a Lincoln-related competition in Tokyo, the host gravely intones: "Laura, please hand your cell phone to our 16th president.") Yet the novel never turns into a cartoon or a slapstick farce; it's far more real than the elaborate constructions television erects to show human nature in the raw. Parkhurst's surefooted, eloquent prose reveals everything in its proper time, and treats the unspoken fears of her questing, broken characters with uncommon grace.