Home » OL Weekly

Book Review: Cambridge

By (March 16, 2014) No Comment

Cambridgecambridge cover
By Susanna Kaysen
Knopf, 2014

Susanna, the bookish and abnormally intelligent little girl who narrates Susanna Kaysen’s new novel Cambridge sounds nothing at all like a six-year-old (unless the six-year-old is John Stuart Mill). Rather, she sounds like Susanna the author, in her mid-sixties, looking back at her childhood:

I’d read Barrie. The idea of Peter Pan – and the fact that the real Kensington Gardens was just across town – had something to do with my determination to fly and with whatever did or didn’t happen on the day I did or didn’t fly. Giving up flying was therefore freighted with an extra sadness: Now I was a grownup.

Cambridge is billed by its publisher as a novel, and it’s perhaps true that the odd potted plant or semicolon differs from Kaysen’s own biography. The period of the book is the late 1950s; little Susanna’s father is a Harvard economics professor, and her mother is a housewife who’d studied classical piano. The family has its roots in the quiet, leafy college town along the Charles River, and the place is sacred in little Susanna’s emotions. But the family is often traveling – to London, to steaming-hot Athens, and to Italy, which evokes several of the book’s best descriptive set-pieces, like this one on the odd bathrooms of Rome:

The bathrooms were as big as the bedrooms and there were lots of them. They had large windows and spacious bathtubs and skittery white marble floors veined with green streaks in my parents’ bathroom and rosy streaks in mine and blue-gray streaks in the one at Frederika’s end of the hall. The only disturbing thin about them – and it was puzzling more than bothersome – was that the fixtures were oddly placed. A sink popped up at a peculiar angle, off-center between two windows, and a toilet as too far into the middle of the room, acting as if it were an armchair. Probably the bathrooms had been bedrooms once, before the plumbing was put in at the turn of the century, and before bathroom layouts had been routinized.

There’s the gesture of a sub-plot winding its way through Cambridge, involving the family’s redoubtable nanny and her love affair with a passionate music-teacher. But the real point of the book seems to be an eloquent and stylized type of woolgathering, a voice and pacing indistinguishable from Kaysen’s best-selling memoir Girl, Interrupted. Cambridge is a far less angry, far more nostalgic book than Girl, Interrupted and thus far less focused, coalescing around young Susanna (fictional or otherwise)’s standout memories of the various locations of her childhood. The most striking of these involve Cape Cod, where the family vacations, which is described with loving warmth:

To wake up on a summer morning in Wellfleet and stand on a deck, however sloped and rotting, and breathe the exhalations of the bosomy landscape, all the breasted hills between the two faces of the ocean – the serene, almost brackish bay and the crazed Atlantic – and to smell the sweet marsh hat mixed with the fecal lowtide oozes and watch a tern snip little quarter-moons out of the sky and see the bay waters gray and flat or nearly white with froth but in any weather seeming, oddly, not to move because of being contained by the long curving arm at one end and Wellfleet Harbor at the other – well, that’s something. A sort of something unlike any other thing.

Readers coming to Cambridge looking for any of the consummations of actual novels will turn the pages with increasing puzzlement. Readers willing to put their thumbs over the little section of the book’s cover that says “a novel” will fare much better. Precise and thoughtful writing either way.