“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.” So the story begins, a tale of childhood that is also very much about place: Cambridge, Mass. (her “real” Cambridge, as opposed to Cambridge, England, where the novel begins), Cape Cod, Italy and Greece.
When Susanna Kaysen’s “Cambridge” (Alfred A. Knopf, 258 pages, $25.95) begins, Susanna, a self-described “cranky and difficult” child, is 7, uprooted from “her” Cambridge to become “a prisoner in England, sentence indeterminate.” Susanna is obviously wicked smart, but bored and alienated at school, with a teacher who announces, after Susanna reads a passage aloud, “That, class, is a perfect example of how not to pronounce your words.” In the England of the 1950s, grayness prevails; time is “thick and impenetrable. It might as well have been plaster.”
All that changes in Italy, where “a day was a long, coherent totality, shining and hot, all of one piece,” and she is “transformed by love” — not for a city this time, but for a statue, Donatello’s St. George. As the narrator wryly observes, her second love wasn’t much better than her first — for Cambridge — since “no matter how much I loved it, it could never return my love.”
Returning home with an English accent and Italian sandals, she gets sent to “the most progressive of the progressive schools,” which she immediately recognizes as bogus, with a thin veneer of child-friendliness that can’t conceal “the usual Cambridge atmosphere of competition and compulsive ranking of everything and everyone.”
School doesn’t interest her, but the world of adults does. In the long chapter titled “Some Dinner Parties,” we see Susanna as a child anthropologist, trying to make sense of her family in the same way she tried to make sense of the alien cultures of England and Italy — and from the same perspective as an outside observer. Her relationship with her stylish, artistic mother is one of detached opposition, with her academic, intellectual father one of detached but relatively peaceful coexistence. Both parents come across as strong personalities wrapped up in their own lives and concerns. Not surprisingly, Susanna’s favorite people, her music teacher and her best friend’s father, “had the same sort of presence — a presence that left enough air and space for other people.” Susanna’s observations of this entertaining ensemble cast are often funny, equally often sad, always astute.
“Cambridge” is an episodic novel, structured by place more than plot, with the slow rhythms of childhood: As the narrator avows, “when you’re seven, one year is the same as twenty.” It reads more like memoir than novel — not surprising, perhaps, from an author best known for the memoir “Girl, Interrupted.” Certainly the outlines of the novel are those of Kaysen’s life, and her characters’ names are those of her family’s. The final lines, however, may suggest why it is called a novel rather than a memoir. The 11-year-old Susanna, realizing her childhood is gone, thinks, “Now that it was over, I could turn the past into anything I wanted.” What she has turned it into is an exquisite little book full of descriptions and anecdotes that shimmer like fireflies on a dark July night.
Patricia Hagen teaches English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.