An itinerant childhood overseen by brilliant and sociable parents sounds great on paper.
The reality of it left Susanna Kaysen torn. Kaysen, of course, grew into the young woman whose 18-month incarceration at McLean Psychiatric Hospital became the basis for super-best-selling memoir Girl, Interrupted. Born in Cambridge, Mass. to a prominent economist father and gifted pianist mother, she lived with her family in England, Italy and Greece before reaching puberty—pining all the while for the safe suburban hometown where she felt she belonged.
“It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did. I fell in love with the city, the way you fall in love with a person, and suffered during the many separations I endured,” Kaysen writes in her new novel Cambridge.
Though the story cleaves to the author’s childhood, beginning at age seven circa 1955, Kaysen chose to present Cambridge as a novel instead of a memoir. “When I realized that I was not going to be able to accurately remember things from my childhood—both my parents were dead, I was going to have to wing it, and memory is always a liar—I thought, ‘Well, after all, I’m not writing my memoirs here’—[as in] ‘I am the old retired general and I’m writing my memoirs’—so I thought that it was okay to say it’s fiction. It’s a novel because it’s a version of the past. If I said it has nothing to do with me, nobody would believe that, because of course it does,” she says.
Cambridge is narrated by Susanna, a precocious outsider who’s often deadpan funny in her declamations. She proclaims London grim, not least the grimy toilet in the rented house that “squatted in porcelain malevolence.” “The English toilet was a nightmare. Every day the toilet convinced me—though I needed no more convincing—that we absolutely had to go home,” Kaysen writes. She finds things similarly disquieting in Florence and Athens, save those rare encounters with artworks that fan flames reminiscent of her first love, Cambridge.
In light of her feelings for places and things, Susanna’s connections to people seem more tenuous in the novel. A younger sister, hardly mentioned, is just “the baby.” And though she’s enmeshed in the adult worlds of academia and the arts—observing her mother’s machinations to unite the nanny with the music instructor, her father’s musings on colleagues with Nobel Prize-winning potential—she lacks the subtext required of a full participant.
That difficulty led Kaysen to adopt a hybridized point of view: primarily adolescent, with occasional flashes of an older, wiser perspective. “I wanted some opacity, some retrospective perception, some older consciousness popping in now and then: What was her mother actually like? What was her parents’ relationship actually like?” she asks. “It was problematic for me, because I did think that there would be something lacking if the narrative were entirely confined to what, for instance, a seven-year-old child could notice and understand. But since she gets older, I get older, there’s less of that confining pressure as the book goes on.”
Though the family alights in Cambridge more than once during the course of the book, the place fails to cure Susanna’s malaise. “I couldn’t locate the problem—I couldn’t tell if the problem was ‘real’ or just something the matter with me. Maybe while I was away Cambridge had gotten worn out and dirty and unappealing. A worse thought was that it had always been like this, but I hadn’t known it. Or maybe it was both. Maybe I’d changed and Cambridge had also changed,” she writes.
Maybe it’s just lonely to be a logophile among the mathematically minded, exacerbated by having to be the new girl in a series of cities and schools. “What’s so hard about being a child is you just have no control over anything, and I remember that just driving me insane,” Kaysen says.
Readers may see a Girl prequel in Cambridge—though that certainly wasn’t its author’s aim. Rather, Kaysen intends it as the first installment of a chronicle of place.
“I have been obsessed with my hometown all my life, and I’ve always wanted to write a long, great—great as in large—complicated book about this place, which I’ve been trying to do since I was in my twenties, when of course I could not even begin to. Now that I’m heading towards that last section [of life], I feel that maybe I can,” says Kaysen. “My hope is that, if I’m able to write a second volume, that I will continue to be the ‘eye’—the watcher, the reporter—but I would like it to be less about me and more about Cambridge itself.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.