By Susanna Kaysen

(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 272 pages)

Who is this author?

Best known as the author of the memoir turned film, “Girl, Interrupted,” Susanna Kaysen also wrote the novels “Asa, As I Knew Him” and “Far Afield” and the memoir “The Camera My Mother Gave Me.” She lives in, loves and writes about  Cambridge, Mass.

What is this book about?

Susanna Kaysen, the author, grew up in 1950s Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard and bastion of liberal politics, lifestyles and world-views. Susanna, the protagonist of “Cambridge,” is a fictional version of the author as a young girl, and the book looks back at her young life in this haven of academia and artistic achievement with nostalgia for its peculiarities and for the tween years she experienced before “tween” was a word. Always longing to go back to Cambridge as her professor father’s career took them to the great cities of Europe, Kaysen seems fated to be the outsider who has the perspective with which to capture that place in her memories and to make it live for her readers.

Why you’ll like it:

The book centers on Cambridge, but it is just as much about being a bright, lonely young girl growing up in confusing times – and the times are always confusing to bright and lonely young girls approaching womanhood. It is that universality that will endear readers to this story. You may not be philosophically or politically attuned to “the People’s Republic of Cambridge,” as it later came mockingly to be known, but you will relate to the coming-of-age aspects of this thoughtful novel built on real life.

What others are saying:

“With Cambridge, Kaysen is writing about a personal theme, her hometown, where she has lived for most of her life . . . The novel is a portrait—almost a still life—of the city in the 1950s, revolving around a dreamy girl and her intellectual, worldly parents. Kaysen grew up among the academics and artists of Cambridge, too, the eccentric characters who socialized with her mother and her economist father, Carl Kaysen, a highly respected professor first at Harvard, then at MIT. But even though Cambridge is heavily autobiographical (the young heroine’s name is Susanna), it is fiction, a decision Kaysen made to help her in the writing process [and] enabled her to invent,” says Matthew Gilbert, writing in The Boston Globe.

“Poignant . . . Kaysen, the author of Girl, Interrupted, her affecting memoir about her stint as a psychiatric patient in 1967, [had] a wry humor, [and] Kaysen brings that same appealing style to her memoir-like third novel, Cambridge. It’s not an epic or a page-turner, but it succeeds as a wisely observed story about leaving childhood—both its humiliating powerlessness and its blissful innocence—whether you want to or not . . . It is also about nostalgia, and the tricks of memory. Every recollection contains an element of fiction. When we leave her at age 11, Susanna is standing in her Cambridge back yard after dinner, a ‘booming, echoing feeling in my chest . . . My childhood—it was gone!’ What was wonderful, she concludes, was ‘standing alone in the night, rewriting the past to make myself miss what had never been,’”  says Christina Ianzito in The Washington Post.

“Elegant, remarkable. The experience of reading Cambridge, the story of a girl growing up in the 1950s, feels like settling back into a warm chair after an absence . . . Novels-from-life like Cambridge often contain their own brand of wisdom. They are books whose use of the techniques of fiction seems to have an almost political purpose: namely, to make mundane realities worth inscribing in print. And there is something very noble about insisting that there is art in those experiences we would not necessarily call novelistic. And in then being totally honest about the way in which we tend to shape and revise the stories we tell ourselves . . . There is indeed something uniquely worth recording not just about one’s childhood, but about the way in which we spend our lives revising it into such outlines,” says Michelle Dean in Slate.

Says Library Journal: “This latest novel from Kaysen (Asa, As I Knew Him) follows a character named Susanna from the second to the sixth grade, taking her through four countries, a Swedish nanny, and a Brahman piano teacher who never makes her play. Susanna leads an unconventional life and is not happy about it. Maladjusted, awkward, and lonely, she has only one friend her age, and he lives in Cambridge, MA. Kids are just one more reason to hate school, but though she spends most of her time abroad in the company of adults, they make no more sense to her than do her classmates. What she does love is the English language, and Susanna’s facility with language allows Kaysen to create tension and humor around experiences that would seem insignificant to an adult but that Susanna finds traumatic. VERDICT Although Susanna’s despair and confusion are palpable throughout, this is not a depressing work. Susanna is a curious girl whose travels often leave her awestruck. Readers of literary fiction and novels about academic life will find the globe-trotting parents interesting, if not ideal protectors.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “Susanna, a “cranky and difficult” young girl with complicated parental relations, recalls her formative years, traveling from English shores to Grecian temples, in this fictional memoir, which, as the title implies, focuses on the period she and her academic parents lived in Cambridge, Mass. Despite the somewhat predictable nature of Susanna’s feelings (“They’d be sorry when I froze to death two blocks away, a pathetic little creature with only my bicycle for a friend”) and the lengthy digressions on topics like piano lessons, this raw, biting autobiographical novel from the author of Girl, Interrupted frequently lights up to the point of incandescence with subtle descriptions and astute, witty anecdotes. The depiction of the courtship between Susanna’s piano teacher and her Swedish nanny, Frederika, in which the narrator’s mother and a few other key characters play strong supporting roles, is a literary tour-de-force, neatly displaying Kaysen’s unique talent for creating an engaging ensemble cast that comes uniquely alive under adolescent eyes: “Mascara, a swipe of red lipstick, and a dab of rouge could transform Frederika into a monster in two minutes. It was terrifying.” Susanna may not be the most likeable young girl, and she certainly spends a good deal of time wallowing in self-pity (“I could keep growing and thinking and reading in secret, in my dark, sorry-for-myself basement of failure and neglect, like a little rat”), but for Kaysen and her legion of fans, the focus on adolescence is a theme that works. And why not? Sometimes, parental neglect or some other sad reality is just a fact of life, and the effects are, unfortunately, affectingly real.”

When is it available?

You don’t have to go to Cambridge to find “Cambridge.” It’s on the shelf at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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