Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss – a classic case of me choosing a book for its cover. And how can you blame me? A pixilated photograph of sunbathing in the sixties, pops of turquoise AND testimonials from authors including Margot Livesey and Maggie Shipstead – irresistible!
Set in Pasadena, California in the fifties and sixties and told from the perspective of studious Rebecca Madden and her beautiful, reckless friend Alex, the story charts the girls’ dreams for lives beyond their mothers’ narrow expectations. The backdrop – women’s lib, the Vietnam War, the American cultural revolution. The blurb includes the enticing tidbit – “…one sweltering evening the summer before their last year of college…. a single act of betrayal changes everything.”
I wanted to like Autobiography of Us in the same way as I did Lisa Klaussman’s Tigers in Red Weather – for all its languid summer days, shared confidences and simmering resentments, however, it fell short.
Two niggles with this book. Firstly, it takes us down the increasingly well-trodden path of revealing the fifties and sixties for what they really were (yes, you may have had a frilly apron and baked perfect cakes but that’s because you had no choice but to be a housewife). I can’t really blame the author for this – I should know that if I want an exposé on the fifties and sixties, I need only turn on an episode of Mad Men or read some Yates.
Secondly, the relationship between Rebecca and Alex. The story hinges around a friendship forged when the girls meet at age 14 and yet there is no apparent basis for this friendship, short of new-girl Alex singling Rebecca out and proclaiming they’d be life-long friends.
“From the day she arrived at Windridge, we were the best of friends. You know how girls are at that age. We found each other like two animals recognising a similar species: noses raised, sniffing, alert.”
Therein lies the problem – although I think the instant-friends-phenomenon is more commonly the domain of six-year-olds, I accept that it can happen with teenagers. The rub is the ‘similar species’ bit. Rebecca and Alex aren’t similar species – Sloss establishes the characters as opposites in temperament and although their fate and lack of conviction is ultimately similar, this could not have been foretold at age fourteen.
I like the term ‘frenemy’ for Rebecca and Alex. But with frenemies in mind, when the girls begin college and inevitably grow apart – cue the ‘betrayal’ – I didn’t really care. And when they both marry, have children and become housewives, I also didn’t care. Yes, Sloss wanted us to draw comparisons between the girls and their mothers (the conclusion being same shit, different decade), and she also wanted us to admire the contrast she creates between repression and revolution, played out through Rebecca and Alex. But it all lacked lustre, lacked cunning.
On the plus side, there’s some lovely writing, conjuring pictures of summers at ‘the club’ and the lure of friendship with someone you consider you’re ‘punching above weight’ with. Alexandra’s opening monologue about her new home is a prime example –
“Hideous, all of it… You’ll see. Eleanor’s had the place done Oriental — oh, I don’t care for honorifics. It’s Eleanor and Beau around here, and they’ll expect you to call them the same. Anyway, the whole thing’s silk and tasseled pillows and these awful little Chinaman figurines, which she insists positively ooze the West Coast esthetique. Meanwhile, I only know everything about California there is to know. It might have behooved her to ask my opinion.”
2.5/5 I wanted to care more, I really did.
Serve Autobiography of Us with Lady Baltimore Cake – I had never heard of such a thing until I read about it in this book. I found a recipe in none other than the Pasadena Weekly.