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Autobiography of Us: A Novel Hardcover – February 5, 2013


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Henry Holt and Co. (February 5, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780805094558
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805094558
  • ASIN: 0805094555
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (96 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #530,018 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2013: Aria Beth Sloss should be proud of herself. Her exquisite debut novel does the extraordinary: It takes a cliché concept (a coming-of-age story) and makes it compelling without any frills or gimmicks. There is no apocalypse, no war-ravaged city, and no vampires. Just two women, friends since grade school, attempting to navigate 1960s Pasadena, a time and place oppressive to women who dared dream beyond life as a housewife. The narrator, Rebecca, wants to be a doctor, but taking science classes at college brings shame on her family because that is not the path a girl searching for a husband takes. Alex, her best friend, wants to be an actress. Her star burns bright, drawing Rebecca into her inner circle; unsurprisingly, though, it ultimately burns everyone around her. Their friendship is complicated and messy, full of love and hate and unshakable loyalty. Autobiography of Us is fiction that reads like real life. It claws at the truth of what drives us and how we deal with the disappointments of dreams that do not come true. --Caley Anderson

Amazon Exclusive: Maggie Shipstead Interviews Aria Beth Sloss

Maggie Shipstead: What are the origins of Autobiography of Us? Did you start with setting, characters, story? You're a lifelong East Coaster, but the book opens in Pasadena in the 1960s. I'm curious what drew you to that region and era.

Aria Beth Sloss: Autobiography began as a series of questions about my mother, who was raised in Pasadena during roughly the same timeframe. Though I grew up in Boston, my family flew to California every year to spend time with my maternal grandparents, so from a very young age I knew Pasadena as the place where my mother had grown up. It comes as a shock, that moment when you realize your parents were once young. Suddenly, they're people. With that peoplehood comes a past. With that past comes questions, which in my case took on a certain urgency as I entered my twenties. I could say something nobler drove me, but the truth is that I started this book--a book which explores women coming of age during the era in which my mother came of age--out of sheer frustration with what I saw as the limitations facing young women coming of age in my own era. In the end, Autobiography sprang from, as I suppose all novels do, an intensely personal quest.

MS: Rebecca and Alex in your novel have a powerful, permanent friendship but are barbed, even hostile sometimes, in the way they communicate with each other. I find that my friendships with women are rich and important but often also fraught. Did you think a lot about the nature of female friendship while you were writing? Did the writing change the way you think about your own life at all?

ABS: One of the astonishing things that kept happening to me while working on the book was that I kept discovering, and re-discovering, what it was about. It wasn't until two to three years after I started writing Autobiography that I began to see Alex as a central figure. Even then, it took another year for me to understand the relationship between Alex and Rebecca as the book's core. Which is all to say that I was surprised, four years in, to discover I'd written a novel focused on the relationship between two women. It makes sense: I wanted to write about women who came of age in this particular time and place. But I think I also just wanted to write about love. Towards the end of revising, when Rebecca and Alex's relationship had surfaced as the novel's throughline, I found myself nostalgic for the friendships and loves of my early adolescence. There’s a fluidity to one's identity during those teenage years that makes a relationship as intense and conflicted as Rebecca and Alex's possible. Love as a fully-formed adult, with all the boundaries and definitions adulthood requires, is a very different animal. I suppose there's a part of me that mourns the passing of that ability to lose yourself in another human being. It's a precious, dangerous, thing.

MS: I know you're an intrepid editor. How would you describe the novel's evolution from first draft until now? What do you do when you get stuck?

ABS: I'm glad to hear you think of me that way, because editing certainly didn't come naturally. I didn't start writing fiction seriously until I was twenty-five, and as someone who felt the pressure of being a late bloomer, I was fiercely protective of the words I put down on the page. I discovered the power of editing at graduate school, where, under the guidance of a few kind and brilliant teachers, I learned how little those first drafts mean. Those teachers not only took away the sting of tossing out sentences, they also showed me that nothing of any significance happens on the page without time, patience, and perseverance. In writing, as in so much of life, being stubborn is half the battle.

In the case of Autobiography, the word "evolution" is too polite a word to apply to the process this book underwent from start to finish. You'd be better off asking how it is that I managed to drive a train into the ground a dozen--two dozen, three dozen--times and still manage to salvage something resembling a train at the end. That's more or less how it felt. For me, writing a novel meant surrendering any sense of control, and then digging up the courage to assume control. I did this again, and again, and again.

MS: What are some books and writers that influenced Autobiography of Us? Are these the same books and writers that influence you generally?

ABS: I hadn't read Mary McCarthy's The Group when I started Autobiography, but I knew it existed. Just knowing there was a book out there that dealt with the question of how women fit into the framework of American society reassured me there was room in the world for the story I wanted to tell. Kate Walbert's magnificent Our Kind, which I'd read many times, served a similar purpose. Still, I'd be lying if I said I spent those years working on Autobiography looking only to books with similar subject material for inspiration. What I looked for then is what I always look for--a voice I can't shake. Marilynne Robinson is someone I turn to again and again. But there are so many contemporary writers whose work I feel privileged to read. Alongside the old favorites--Charlotte Bronte, Nabokov, Faulkner, Edith Wharton--come new heroes: Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Helen Dewitt, Anthony Doerr, Zadie Smith, Andrew Sean Greer, Junot Diaz... on and on. To those who think fiction is a dying art, I say: you're just not paying attention.

From Booklist

Lonely and bright, an only child brought up by parents less flush than her peers’ parents, Rebecca turns to new-girl Alex like a flower to the sun. In ever-vernal 1960s Pasadena, opposites Rebecca and Alex become fast and fierce friends, stuck together like two ends of a battery. Their charge begins to weaken, however, when Alex’s interest in theater summons her away to camp, all but fizzles in college when Rebecca would rather study biology than attempt to understand one of Alex’s obscure performances, and is extinguished to near death when one dark moment leads Rebecca to make a fateful decision. Her best friend spurned and her dream of following medicine dashed in one fell swoop, Rebecca escapes restrictive southern California and the mother whose only wish for her is to marry well and starts anew. Before long, though, she and Alex reconnect, and the true nature and madness of their friendship unfurls. An impressive psychological drama, Sloss’ first novel aptly brings to the fore the social issues that uniquely challenge her heroine. --Annie Bostrom

Customer Reviews

I found it boring with a hurried ending.
Lisa Bruzzese
Good story about two girls growing up and how their path differ and their struggles.
C. Papa
If you are looking for a page turner, not this book.
CB

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

33 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Kcorn TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on February 6, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I didn't intend to read this one through in a single sitting but I couldn't help it. I was quickly engrossed by the author's description of Rebecca and her early and lasting connection to Alexandra: "We found each other like two animals recognizing a similar species."

It would be enough if this was a well- written tale of the often tumultuous bond between these two women through the years. But it is so much more. it is also a rich portrait of the 60s and an unflinching view of women's choices in those years..

The portrayals of Rebecca and Alexandra are vivid and richly layered - yes, friends but sometimes antagonists, almost two halves of a puzzle. They may seem to resemble each,other but they are far from identical. Yet even when they are separated Rebecca feels compelled to write letters to Alexandra. She doesn't send them but they still serve a purpose, allowing Rebecca to imagine her friend beside her, listening.

There are some striking differences between the two women. Rebecca is envious of Alexandra's more privileged life and embarrassed by her own relative poverty. For her part, Alexandra is impatient with Rebecca, pushing her to be more direct and less obtuse. Alexandra also struck me as more skilled in ferreting out Rebecca's secrets

What ultimately hooked me, pulled me into Autobiography of Us, was more than the women's complicated relationship, although it was wonderfully depicted. It was also the vivid and detailed examination of how female dreams and aspirations were affected by some hard realities in the 60s -as reflected in Rebecca and Alexandra's lives. I remember those years, making the book especially resonant for me.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Rebecca lost her best friend Alex twice. But I am not sure she ever had her as the best friend Rebecca believed to exist. It takes Rebecca a life of growth to understand what she learns of friendship. . Coming of age stories in the era of the 50's and 60's are not scarce on the ground. However this novel holds a resonance for me. Rebecca, the barely middle class lover of books, and Alex, the wealthy seeker of fame, are not a likely friendship. At surface level, it would seem that Alex plays the well known lesser girl foil to the pretty girl. The interplay of their interior lives is thoughtfully drawn and escapes the temptation of cliche.

The captivating part of the book is that our narrator, Rebecca, reveals what she doesn't know. She has a singular meaning as a touchstone to Alex. This makes the events of their relationship a poignant tale. Our narrator is also well aware of their cultural differences, her mother makes sure of that. However at a more profound level, Rebecca is able to point us to deeper waters. The deeply engrained efforts of Rebecca 's mother toward respectability draws a dimension to our narrator's perception.

The writing immediately draws the reader into the story. The settings draw catches of memory for those of us who are a certain age; but describe this world well to those naive to those times. Vignettes of the people around them are beautifully detailed. I enjoyed this heralded book, and I think This book is a well earned Amazon Best Pick.
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28 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Lenushka_13 on February 21, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This book is marketed as a novel about friends, and while a somewhat miss-matched friendship provides an umbrella context for the plot, it's not really about friendship. This is a novel about mothers and their children, or more specifically, mothers and their daughters. However, Aria Beth Sloss doesn't really seem to know that. In fact, Aria Beth Sloss doesn't seem to really know what she's writing about at all.

Because is Autobiography of Us really about friendship or motherhood at all? Or is this a novel about the turbulent sixties and seventies? Is it a novel about the plight of women during that era? Is it a metaphor for love in all its unconventional forms? Or is it a novel about a would-be starlet who burned to bright, only to fall back to earth in disgrace? The answer is...sort of. This short novel - not even 300 pages - is packed with all sorts of lurid details: a drunken one-night stand, an illicit abortion, a childhood friend lost to war, a closet homosexual. But it unfolds like a greatest hits album. The highlights are all here, but without any overarching significance or emotional resonance. It's like Sloss decided to write about the sixties and complied a list of everything she knew about the time period, but forgot to focus on one idea or another.

She even seems to have forgotten character development. None of the characters are particularly well drawn and they lack motivation. Rebecca dreams of becoming a doctor, but when she's not recommended to medical school, drifts through life until she gets married. Alex's dreams of becoming an actress are similarly dashed, but we're never exactly told why. She just doesn't become an actress, who cares why.
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