Certainly, I understand what you mean in terms of the 13-year-old narrator (and you remember correctly, she goes unnamed). She is so blunt and level-gazed in her observations. She doesn’t nice anything up. On the guy at the corner grocery who passes her free groceries: “[H]is nose is huge and red and usually has a ripe white pimple on it” — and he gets off easy. Nor does she milk us for sympathy. When the hotdog vendor John is feeling her tits, she coolly sits on his lap and considers how much feel time he should get in exchange for a couple free hotdogs. Shrugs, gets off, wanders up the street.
And yet, I’d maintain that any novel that repeats the exclamation “Fuck, what a dog!” about the family pet is probably going to register as at least a little sentimental. That’s not a diss, by the way. It’s part of what I responded to, that brew of deadpan and emotion. It’s hard to put this into words, but there’s a summoning feeling to this book, as if the author were less interested in telling a discrete story (“here’s how an unnamed 13-year-old girl got fondled, got free hotdogs and got a life”) than she is in calling up an entire epoch (“here’s the whole sprawled constellation of who we were and what it was like”).* And part of that summoning comes out as extravagant emotion. There’s this repeated motif of the kids in the family drowning (or seeming to drown) while swimming — not much of a leap there to metaphor — and the dog rushing out to save them. How could you not then exclaim over such a dog?
You also mention the many characters great and small that populate this novel. There are so many, aren’t there! I loved the narrator’s mother (“merde!”) as well as her sisters — an affinity for deadpan, it’s nice to see, is a family trait — and her temperamental older brother. Beyond their immediate family cluster, John the hotdog vendor stands out for me (and from him, a sense of all the hotdog guys on their corners) — I found him repulsive and moving at the same time. Ma mère, the boozy French grandmother, belted to a chair. Manolo, Rena. Which character(s) stood out for you?
* There are a few places where the point of view in the novel shifts from this strong first-person narrator to follow other characters. We go with the brother and the slut to Spain, for example, and we get the mom’s p.o.v. on a date, I believe. For me, these shifts added to the epoch-ness of the book, the sense that it's calling up multitudes.
Another, related explanation about these p.o.v. shifts comes from an Amazon reviewer, who makes this great observation, “[The book] reads like a lucid dream of childhood, the sort in which events that you were only told about seem equally as real as things you participated in directly.”