By Kaylie Jones

Bantam Books. 178 pp. $19.95; paperback, $7.95

Sometimes it seems life is only a long process of getting over childhood, and nowhere more so than in coming-of-age novels, where two things at least are certain: The author survived, but he hasn't forgotten.

Some such novels are classics -- "The Catcher in the Rye," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Many are in themselves rites of passage for the writer, or exorcisms.

They are clearly not easy to write, and they are rarely easy to read, always hovering painfully close to autobiography, and sometimes to revenge. This is greatly complicated when the actual events surrounding a childhood are pages from a history book, or when the author comes from a famous family.

In "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," Kaylie Jones movingly describes the tumultuous childhood and adolescence in the 1960s and '70s of an American girl who grows up in Paris, the daughter of a famous expatriate writer -- a story that must at least resemble her own childhood as the daughter of James Jones.

The novel -- Kaylie Jones's third -- centers on the curious and, it turns out, illegal adoption by the American writer William Willis and his wife, March, of a 4-year-old French boy, Benoit, who will eventually become Billy.

The arrival of the frightened little boy -- who has lived in a foster family where the woman committed suicide, and since then in an orphanage -- turns upside down the world of Channe Willis, also 4 and a self-described brat, who has been raised to get her own way by a lovable but childlike Portuguese nanny, Candida.

Why was it so hard to "be nice all the time?" Channe asks herself. "Wasn't it easier to be nice? Why, on the rare occasion that I was nice, did I suddenly feel so rotten about all the times I wasn't nice to {Billy}? Why did he always make me want to pull his hair or bite him ferociously? Either that or he gave me a feeling of utter self-disgust, emptiness, and gloom."

This sets a pattern for their childhood. Channe will alternately love and hate Billy, protect and denounce him as a stranger, while he grows inward and she grows loudmouthed, unable to spell and destructively boy crazy.

Both children are distant from others -- from each other, but also from their parents and the children they play with and suffer from. Candida is for a long time the closest person to Channe: "It seemed to me that Candida and I were bonded forever, that we were in life together for the long haul, against the rest of the world. The rest of the world included my parents." But Channe will lose Candida, as well as much else.

The children are little displaced persons, strangers in both French and American life, jeered at as both "Amerloques" and "frogs," and they feel this deeply, in anger and in self-disgust.

The ultimate wrench comes when the family moves back to the United States as the children reach the terrible gloom of the teen years, only to lose their father to heart disease, and later their mother and their home to a "beau" who has emus as pets.

This sense of being strangers everywhere will eventually bring them together, the only real family each is left with.

"A Soldier's Daughter" is often touching. Channe's description of her teen years in an America she hardly knows has a gritty reality that hurts.

Indeed, it is in this rawness that one is reminded of James Jones, of the naked, goodhearted emotion of "From Here to Eternity" unsentimentally sentimental and uncynically cynical. But the earnestness and occasional awkwardness of James Jones's writing was countered by the breadth of the canvas.

Kaylie Jones's fictional world here is much smaller. Her novel is believable, wrenching -- but ultimately it feels like disorganized, painful memories. We wish for some greater pattern to emerge, but we're left with a worthy, often funny story about growing up weird on two continents, about sex and heartbreak and love and loss -- a childhood.

The reviewer is a deputy editor of the International Herald Tribune.