9 HIGHLAND ROAD by Michael Winerip. (Pantheon: $24; 464 pp.) Journalist Michael Winerip's, book, "9 Highland Road," an account of life in a group home for the mentally ill over a three-year period, is, in many ways, similar to a fairly intelligent nighttime soap. This has both advantages and drawbacks. On the plus side, there's an interesting, diverse cast, each member dealing with his or her own issues. The world of mental illness (like the world of doctors, lawyers or cops) is shown in a captivating way. There's a satisfying sense of closure. On the other hand, as in even a high-quality television drama, everything feels a bit sanitized. Relationships are complex enough to make you think, but only for a few minutes. Characters seem two- and three-quarters dimensional.

That is not to say there isn't a great deal to be learned here. Much of "9 Highland Road," is truly compelling without ever being exploitative. In particular, the chapters dealing with one resident's multiple personality disorder are unforgettable. "Night after night the personality that caused the most turmoil by far was the five year old Scared One. Something awful had happened to Julie at five. Di, (another personality) who was four, effervescent and well adjusted, absolutely refused to celebrate her birthday. She was adamant about not turning five." Winerip's writing is smooth and pleasant although somewhat lacking in physical detail. "9 Highland Road" may either satisfy or frustrate depending on your expectations. This is a book that will stick to your ribs, but not your psyche.

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