Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Cambridge," by Susanna Kaysen

Like Mona Simpson’s recent novel, “Casebook,” which I posted about last time (on 5/13/14), Susanna Kaysen’s new novel, “Cambridge” (Knopf, 2014), is told from the perspective of a child. In this case the child is a girl, Susanna, and the story tells of a family that moves from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Cambridge, England, with stays in other European cites as well, and back. Her family is academic, intellectual, and artistic. She has a kind of privileged life, but she is not necessarily happy with that life. She is obviously bright and perhaps too self-involved and self-conscious. The fact that the narrator has the same first name as the author, along with the fact that the author is best known for her memoirs, including the famous “Girl, Interrupted,” blurs the line between memoir and fiction, as other reviewers have pointed out as well. In any case, reading this novel at almost the same time as I was reading “Casebook” was instructive for me. Although the early adolescent angst of the narrator, and her complicated relationship with her family, is well portrayed and both familiar and of interest, the novel as a whole seems episodic and meandering, and the writing suffers in comparison to Mona Simpson’s. Even if I had not read these two novels almost simultaneously, I think my response to "Cambridge" would have been mild appreciation, mild enjoyment, but no more.

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