What is the price of writing a good memoir? For Susanna Kaysen, it is that for the rest of her life anyone writing about her (including me) will have to lead by mentioning that she is the author of Girl, Interrupted. An instant best-seller when it was published in 1993, the episodic, disjointed, very self-consciously literary memoir of Kaysen’s teenage institutionalization became a sensation. And then: a movie starring Winona Ryder, one that won someone you might have heard of—Angelina Jolie—an Oscar.
You might even think of Girl, Interrupted as Kaysen’s first book—something about a memoir of late adolescence always suggests a first book—but it was actually Kaysen’s third. She had written two novels, Asa, As I Knew Him and Far Afield. And sure, both of them were well and respectably received with short notices in good newspapers. This was nothing like the fanfare that attended Girl. Susan Cheever wrote a glowing, splashy review in the New York Times Book Review, calling the book “triumphantly funny” and lauding its closeness to Cheever’s own sense of the glamor of institutions like McLean, the Massachusetts hospital that had housed Kaysen and also Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. It was the kind of review that ought to come with some kind of disclaimer for the author, like, “WARNING: YOU WILL SPEND THE REST OF YOUR LIFE TALKING ABOUT THIS BOOK.”
Kaysen responded with some ambivalence to it all, at the time, telling the Times in a short feature accompanying the review:
I didn’t understand the fascination with autobiography. Take that and add the loony bin, you get a strangely non-literary response. The reaction I’m getting has nothing to do with the book. The attention is on me as a person, not as a writer.
The movie rights would sell anyway, a few days later. But it’s hard not to read rebellion into the fact Kaysen’s next book, The Camera My Mother Gave Me, was a memoir about vaginal pain, a less market-friendly subject overall. And by the time she was on the publicity tour for that one, she was in full-fledged rejection of the genre that made her name: “But I tell you, this is the end of memoirs for me. There are too many of them. People think they’re real but they’re not. They’re just as full of self-deception and occlusion as a novel.”
All of this is by way of saying that you might indeed enjoy the new book Kaysen has out, a slim, elegant little novel called Cambridge. I certainly did. But it comes with all this baggage. It is not a book, I think, that operates in a space entirely distinct from that context. Knowing the backstory enhances your understanding of the story itself. Is that a criticism? I am agnostic as to whether it actually constitutes a flaw. The experience of reading Cambridge feels like settling back into a warm chair after an absence. The atmosphere is so pleasant that you forget you got up for weeks, or months, or years.
Plot-wise, Cambridge tells the story of a girl growing up in the 1950s, largely in the American Cambridge, though she also spends time with her family in London, and Florence, and eventually Greece too, for good measure. The protagonist is about 7 when we meet her and about 12, just having started her period, when we leave her. She is brought to us by the calm, mediated voice of an adult narrator looking on in later years. Her childhood, as so told, is a largely uneventful one, though it is marked by moments of extraordinary perception. Early on, we’re told, the precocious young heroine falls in love with a statue of St. George near a grain market:
Lots of other saints and heroes stood nearby, but he was striking for his straight, upright beauty: Saint George, the patron of England, emblazoned on flags and walls and letterheads there, but never looking like this.
For one thing, no dragon. The dragon was understood. This was a post-slaying portrait.
That is a remarkable bit of art appreciation for a child. But throughout the book the narrator is presented not so much as a well-spoken child as she is an adult reflecting on childhood. When hormones set in they are described with the lucidity and clarity of one who remembers them, not one presently experiencing them:
It came in waves, a death-wave of not-feeling, not-seeing, not-caring. … I’d come back from these death dives with a shred of memory, like of my father putting me to bed when I was four. A little memory. He used to sing to me. He couldn’t sing at all. It was croaking.