Alma Singer is your everyday urban teenager—spending her time thinking about boys, searching for mysterious Eastern Europeans who might not actually exist, and keeping a detailed notebook called How to Survive in the Wild. Er, right…
Typical or not, Alma is very much the energetic lifeforce behind the book. If Leo is largely concerned with growing old and dying, Alma is all about growing up and, well, living. So it makes sense that her search for Alma Mereminski sort of doesn't make sense. She's searching for the possible real-life inspiration for a character in a book because she thinks it might lead her to a man who she thinks might be a good new boyfriend for her mother, despite the fact that past efforts in that department fell flat. (Now say all that ten times fast!) It's undeniably important that this Ms. Mereminski shares our leading lady's first name, because she's just as frantically searching for her own identity.
Alma has a lot on her shoulders. She's mourning the loss of her father, who died a few years before the beginning of the novel. But she's also grieving for her mother. It's difficult to watch her mother suffer so severely, of course, but more than that, her mother has all but disappeared from her life into her own little bubble of pain. Oh, and Alma's sort of grieving for her little brother too, who gets bullied and wets the bed and acts out in ways that make Alma uncomfortable. That's a lot to take on for a teen.
She's also just starting to think about sex and boys and stuff, which is as messy and awkward for her as it was for all of us. Her friend Misha is the only one whom she feels like she can talk to, and so it should come as no surprise that his English is terrible. They kiss a few times and, again, it's really awkward. Alma ends up blurting out things she doesn't mean and they stop talking (but don't stop calling each other and hanging up).
Later developments—attending a drawing class, crying in her mother's arms, a budding romance with Herman Cooper (whose English is much better)—represent progress on her search both for Alma Mereminski and for Alma Singer. Happily, we can only expect great things for our Alma after the book's close.