CAMBRIDGE by Susanna Kaysen


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A woman recalls her childhood in a tony Boston suburb in ways that closely resemble Kaysen’s real life (The Camera My Mother Gave Me, 2001, etc.).

Susanna, the narrator of this elegantly written but curious novel, is a precocious girl who has intelligence to spare but a strong dislike for rules. As the novel opens in 1955, she’s a second-grader who resents being uprooted from her American home to England, where her Harvard-educated economist father teaches for a spell, and Italy, where she receives an early education in both art and her mother’s demanding expectations. Back home the following year, Susanna halfheartedly pursues music under the tutelage of a young conductor who’s enamored of the family’s nanny; Kaysen describes Susanna’s modest musical revelations and family dinner parties with a winning sense of how children process the intriguing and baffling world of grown-ups. The book follows Susanna through the late 1950s as her relationship with her mother undergoes some modest strain, the nanny-conductor relationship ends, and the family spends a drowsy summer in Greece. This is all wryly, gently told, but it also feels dramatically thin, more like a snapshot than a work of fiction with a definable arc. (The biggest late-stage tension in the book is the arrival of Susanna’s first period.) The parallels between the narrator’s and author’s lives are unavoidable; both grew up in Cambridge, for instance, and both have an economist father who spent time in London and Greece and later worked at the White House. Is this lightly fictionalized memoir from a best-selling memoirist or fiction with touches of memoir? Though her prose is luxurious and well-turned, the book’s anecdotal, relatively shapeless form diminishes its impact.

A belletristic vision of tweendom, earnest but inchoate.

Pub Date: March 18th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-35025-9
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2014


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