Batterman’s (Because My Name is Mother, 2012, etc.) novel tells the story of a girl growing up in Brooklyn, New York, as upheaval in America mirrors the chaos in her own home.
The book begins with 5-year-old Rachel Cohen on the eve of her parents’ wedding in September 1974. She’s an intuitive young girl, observing the problems of the adults around her while still finding joy in childhood delights. Her aging, anxious grandmother Ruth Cohen bakes delicious cookies; her parents bicker but are loving and kind. Her aunts and uncles live far away, but her favorite, world-traveling uncle, Jake, is a seemingly endless source of happiness. Rachel’s love for Jake is boundless and as she grows older, sometimes oddly sexual; later, she comes to understand that Jake is gay. The shifting political and social environment of America serves as a backdrop to Rachel’s family’s hectic dynamics in the tumult of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. In the midst of it all, she plays with her friends, gets bullied by local kids, and attends parties as a preteen. When Rachel enters early adolescence, she begins to see fractures in her life—her parents’ dissolving marriage; her grandparents moving away to Tucson, Arizona; and Jake’s mysterious sickness. His rapidly deteriorating health forces her to mature years ahead of her peers, and her final, beautiful, and patient letter to a former childhood girlfriend reveals this tremendously. Batterman’s prose is at times disorganized and juvenile in tone, with more than one use of the clichéd phrase “maybe, just maybe.” The initial chapters are a jumble of memories that makes for a confusing beginning. Still, the author gives depth to her characters, especially Rachel, and visibly demonstrates their changes through the years. Her young protagonist’s childhood naïveté is charming, but the reader will enjoy seeing her become an elegant, mature young woman, aged by experiences that many other people never witness.
An ultimately optimistic and hopeful novel about growing up amid personal and political disarray.