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"Silver Alert" is about end-of-life considerations — creeping dementia, terminal cancer, and anxious adult children trying to do the right thing while mostly doing the wrong thing. And yet because it is a Lee Smith novel, it is bursting with life and laughter and love, an absolute delight.

Smith's characters are, well, real characters, her story is compelling and her theme is uplifting. It could be boiled down to "making the best of a lousy situation." That describes the main character and sometime-narrator, Dee Dee, to a T. She's a North Carolina girl relocated to Florida who does nails and hair in people's homes. She is a hoot — tough, funny, filled with compassion and grit.

Dee Dee shows up at the home of Herb and Susan, there to do Susan's nails. Herb — who narrates half the book — is an older guy who adores his wife and who sees through Dee Dee immediately. (She is not who she says she is.)

Susan is slowly withering away from dementia. Once beautiful, cultured, adventurous and fun, she now scarcely recognizes people and has, at times, violent outbursts. Dee Dee is nearly magical in the way she can soothe her, and Herb becomes quite fond of her.

This fragile relationship among the three of them can't last, though — everyone is teetering — and finally Herb's children step in, provoking the strangest chase scene you've ever read. "Silver Alert" will make you laugh hard and feel hope, even as you're looking at the end square in the eye. And that is a huge gift.

Laurie Hertzel is senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.

Silver Alert

By: Lee Smith.

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 224 pages, $27.