Cambridge - Susanna Kaysen

London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, a precocious young girl growing up in 1950s Cambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the far-flung cities to which her father’s career takes the family. She always comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition. Written with a sharp eye for the pretensions—and charms—of the intellectual classes, Cambridge captures the mores of an era now past, the ordinary lives of extraordinary people in a singular part of America, and the ways we can—and cannot—go home.

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Kaysen takes the confusing route and writes a novel featuring a protagonist with the author's name, so keep in mind when reading this -- the Susanna of this story is fictional (but kind of not...wow, I'm not helping here, am I? LOL)

 

At the novel's start, 1950s era fictional Susanna is the precocious, book loving daughter of an economics professor and a former professional pianist. The family relocates often, but wherever they set up home base always seems to be a house full of music, learning, and comedic matchmaking attempts among the house staff. Even young Susanna comments that home life is such a warm and fun environment, she dreads time spent having to attend school. Kaysen offers so many heartwarming interactions within this family, the reader almost begins to feel cheated they're not a member themselves!

 

Even though the child version of our protagonist clearly displays a dreamer's soul early on, full of curiosity about the world, part of her also longs for a stable, established place to call home once and for all. This yearning becomes the basis for her attachment to the college town of Cambridge, Massachusetts. But as she moves beyond childhood into adulthood, she comes to find that even such a town as this with, its picturesque exterior, is not guaranteed to have all the answers her soul craves. 

 

There's no clear-cut, linear progression, per say, to this novel's plot, more like  strung-together episodes of the character's remembrances over a lifetime. What this book does really well is illustrate that sense of nostalgia that people tend to develop when they become increasingly distanced from their memories over the years. Hard disappointments, given enough time, tend to morph into these glowing vignettes that have the older you smirking, "Those were the days."

 

There is something in Susanna (the character) that rings very relatable to many: boredom with school, struggles with math, a love of books. Readers even get a bit of a crash course in Ancient Greek history! There's one section I found especially charming, where little Susanna offers her nine year old perspective on things after her first experiences with reading Greek mythology. 

 

Where the story gets a bit bogged down is in the background minutiae ... great at first, but in some portions of the story the richness turns to overindulgence and ultimately "reader bellyache". Examples: Susanna's teen years -- the description of her first period went on for several pages. Then the environmental details. At first, it's lovely. Especially for any readers enamored with all the best of Massachusetts life: walks around Cambridge parks, vacations on Cape Cod, etc. But after so many pages of it with not much else going on, it can border on tedious. Though this could be argued as a case of reader preferences and what you're in the mood for when you dive into this book. 

 

Cambridge is not the easiest book to explain or class, and it might not be for everyone, but I'd argue there is a definite audience for it. There are for sure some great take away lines I was noting, such as a pessimist being "a disappointed optimist" or the Daria-esque "my long, agonizing apprenticeship in failure had begun." LOL  

 

University town setting, bookish references... a bluestocking's dream! The opening sequence alone -- that first whole page of an artistic deconstruction of the novel's first line -- just screams " word nerds unite!"