Friday, April 11, 2014

Review of "Cambridge" - A Novel by Susanna Kaysen: A Poignant Fictional Follow-Up To "Girl Interrupted"

Susanna Kaysen is well know for her very personal memoir, "Girl Interrupted."  In "Cambridge," she offers a kind of fictional prequel, following the girlhood of Susanna until about the time that the author herself would have lived the nightmare covered in "Girl Interrupted."

Susanna is the older daughter of a Harvard academic family.  Her father is a left-leaning (shocking for Cambridge!) professor of economics whose opinions are valued in many places around the globe, so the family travels often during Susanna's formative years.  While it is clear that this girl is seldom ever comfortable in her skin or in any place she goes, she has constructed an imaginary happy home nest in Cambridge, Massachusetts  - her nesting place - to which she longs to return from the family's several peregrinations to the cradles of Western civilization.

She is unhappy in Cambridge, England, in Italy, and in Greece.  She hates school, and she conducts a silent civil war with her mother, partly because she and her mother are so much alike that the mother always knows what she is thinking and feeling.  This situation is intolerable to her, because she wants to be more like her father.

Susanna is not a very likable narrator or protagonist, but her descriptions of persons, places and situations are so insightful and interesting, that I was compelled to keep reading.  It certainly did not hurt that with the exception of her time in Greece, she is describing in vivid detail places that I know and love: Cambridge, Florence, Cape Cod.

Her description of the unexpected and troubling sudden appearance of menarche is particularly poignant.  It becomes very clear as Susanna nears adolescence that there are small grindings in her personal tectonic plates that will eventually lead to the full blown earthquake that will land the author in Harvard's McLean Hospital as a teenage girl.

Ms. Kaysen's writing is beautiful and evocative.  Here is a particularly lyrical example from the description of Susanna's family visit to Mycenae in Greece:

"I knew something too, even if I wasn't sure what it was.  The difference between this place and a regular place was like the difference between knowing a melody and then hearing it played by an orchestra.  Everyday life was just one line of song that ran from yesterday through today and into tomorrow, going along a narrow path.  And then - these crazy places in Greece!  Suddenly huge symphonic chords whose bottom notes boomed so far down that there was no knowing where they came from.  The noise of time was enormous,but the places themselves were quiet.  Like the underworld - noting there except the click of crickets." (Page 238)



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