Luckily, she has a best friend, a similarly undiscovered girl with whom she shares the everyday adventures of a 1970s American girlhood, incidents through which a world is revealed, and character is forged.
In time, their friendship is tested-- by their families' claims on them, by a clique of popular girls who stumble upon them as if they were found objects, and by the first, startling, subversive intimations of womanhood.
With dry wit and piercing observation, Jo Ann Beard shows us that in the seemingly quiet streets of America's innumerable Zanesvilles is a world of wonders, and that within the souls of the awkward and the overlooked often burns something radiant and unforgettable.
Mary Gordon, author of The Love of My Youth, interviews Jo Ann Beard about the books they read growing up.
Mary Gordon: My novel, The Love of My Youth, centers upon a couple who were lovers in adolescence, and who don’t meet again until they are nearly sixty. One of the questions I explore is: as we age, are we the people we were when we were young? Is the self stable, or does it change, essentially, over time? I write about the young lovers discovering themselves as teenagers, and in doing this, I retraced the ways in which I discovered myself as a teenager. One of the important ways was through books: I read to find out who I was or whom I wanted to be.
Jo Ann Beard: I read so many books as a teenager, but I don’t believe it was to find out who I was or whom I wanted to be—where I came from those things seemed utterly predetermined. Which was liberating, in a way: I could simply be back then, without the burden of a future looming before me. I think I read simply because I loved slipping out of my own point of view and into someone else’s—my own life was familiar to me, while theirs was new and filled with possibility.
Gordon: The most important thing that I wanted was a larger life, a life larger than the rigidly enclosed Catholic world of Long Island, New York. I yearned for a heroism that was entirely outside the possibilities life offered to me.
Beard: In my family, in the Midwest, I was pretty consistently warned away from a larger life. Heroism would have been considered unseemly, too, but I do believe that I secretly yearned for it, though my version of heroism would have looked a lot like Trixie Belden solving the Mystery of the Red Trailer. Trixie was the poor girl’s Nancy Drew; she was unattractive and didn’t have a great personality.
Gordon: I was obsessed with The Diary of Anne Frank. She was important to me because she suffered so many of the same torments that I did (torments of a burgeoning sexuality, of family conflict) but she was brave and imaginative in unspeakably horrible circumstances. I dreamed of being as wonderful as she if I were put to the test.
Beard: My own experience with The Diary of Anne Frank was similar but different in one important way: because I only read novels at that point in my life, I read it as fiction. Not until years later did I accept that she was a real girl, even after I saw the television play, and even after we talked about her in school. I loved her like I loved David Copperfield or Oliver Twist or Jane Eyre, and I suppose I didn’t want to transpose her to the real world for the obvious reason.
Gordon: I also dreamed of being heroically enduring like Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I could imagine myself battling the elements and a series of other seemingly insuperable odds, nobly leaning on my plow in the Nebraska prairie. Stoic and uncomplaining, whereas in reality a cold or a sunburn, a 95 on a spelling test, a boy who didn’t ask me to a dance, sent me into whirlpools of self pity.
Beard: It’s interesting that your New York self was captivated by stories of the prairie, and my prairie self was captivated by anything but that. My favorite series was by Albert Payson Terhune, whose narrator was a gentleman farmer in New Jersey just after the turn of the century. He raised collies, or rather his servants did, and he and his wife--The Mistress and the Master--presided genteelly over the adventures their dogs had. Those stories were utterly stiff and urbane and I was so enamored I read every one at least twenty times, no exaggeration. The illustrations were beautiful engravings of romping collies and I’d like to have one of them on my tombstone.
Gordon: The life I wanted most was the one lived by the Glass family in Franny and Zooey. I wanted to have a picturesque spiritual crisis like Franny in the Ladies’ Room, I wanted Zooey’s wit and wisdom... I didn’t know whether I wanted to be him or marry him. That made it a little complicated.
Beard: I still remember a long passage in Salinger where Zooey is in the bathtub and his mother comes in and roots around in the medicine cabinet. There was something so delirious and delicious about the setting (a New York apartment bathroom!) and the contents (same junk as in our own medicine cabinet!) that made the world seem very small and accessible to me. It may be the first time I truly understood that a writer was a person just like I was a person, with a bathroom and a toothbrush and a mother who made no apologies for being bossy or wearing a disreputable robe. Talk about heroic.
Gordon: Alongside my heroic reading, however, I was secretly reading a lot of junk. I was a devoted admirer of a series called Career Romances for Young Moderns. I took a book called Nina Grant: Pediatric Nurse out of the library several times. What all these books had in common was an attractive spunky heroine who had what might be called a career (nurse, stewardess, cub reporter) but who always fell victim to a wet patch on the sidewalk or a slippery linoleum floor which catapulted her into the arms of: a doctor, a pilot, a senior editor. Talk about having it all!
Beard: Mine came in the form of racy novels that my mother brought home from yard sales--Jacqueline Susann’s The Love Machine and Valley of the Dolls, Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers, and big explosive epics like Gone with the Wind and anything by James Michener. The good thing about those books was their size. You were safely ensconced for weeks, while your life swirled around you, ignored. That may still be my version of having it all.
(Photo of Jo Ann Beard © Jennifer May; photo of Mary Gordon © Emma Dodge Hanson;)
"A fierce, funny, brave, and bracingly honest new novel....Every bit as poignant and powerful as The Catcher in the Rye."—Julia Keller, Chicago Tribune
"An exuberant first novel....Beard has a knack for melding the funny and the sad, amplifying small moments into something big."—Sussannah Meadows, New York Times
"Masterfully wrought...this novel is at times downright hilarious and often hold-your-breath-and-hope-for-the-best suspenseful. The restraint with which Beard deploys moments of tension and humor makes each page glimmer."—Samuel Reaves Slaton, O Magazine
"Epic and profound. These thoughtful, funny, awestruck, slightly peculiar girls are so endearing, so painfully true."—Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly
"A sure-handed first novel ....It's impossible not to be charmed."—Yvonne Zipp, Washington Post
"A smashing coming-of-age story.... Beard is a faultless chronicler of the young and hopeful; readers couldn't ask for a better guide for a trip through the wilds of adolescence."—Publishers Weekly
"Moving.... Beard travels the well-worn road of budding young womanhood with surprising freshness."—Courtney Jones, Booklist
"Beard has beautifully captured how a shy but observant girl might interpret the awkwardness and the struggle for acceptance in the high school's perplexing social milieu.... Resonates as a bittersweet remembrance."—Kirkus
"Jo Ann Beard has written a mesmerizing account of a time in a girl's life when every moment, every action, is laden with enormous importance. It is so beautifully written, so perfect in its pitch, that I couldn't put it down."—Ann Patchett, author of Run
"Full of charm and wisdom and laugh-out-loud humor, In Zanesville will have readers recalling their own years of wonder and want and fear and doubt. I loved literally every character, every scene."—Elizabeth Berg, author of Once Upon a Time, There Was You
"Beard is a writer of immense talents. In Zanesville is far more than a coming-of-age novel. Our offbeat narrator is spellbinding in her bold vivacity and honesty, an unforgettable character quickly embraced and beloved at the center of our lives."—Howard Norman, author of What Is Left the Daughter
"Beard has a sharp eye, a wry wit, and a warm heart, and in her new book, she has captured perfectly not only a particular era in American life, but an evanescent moment in one beautifully evoked life. I loved this book."—James Hynes, author of Next
"In Zanesville is told by a narrator attuned to the humor and tragedy around her, battling it with her own desperate logics. This novel is an amazing demonstration of friendship, the most necessary and slippery thing we can possess."—Peter Rock, author of My Abandonment
"A fresh comic voice and a talent for sharp familiarizing place-details."
—Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal