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The Beginners Kindle Edition

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Length: 300 pages

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Author One-on-One: Rebecca Wolff and Jonathan Lethem

In this Amazon exclusive, we brought together authors Rebecca Wolff and Jonathan Lethem and asked them to interview each other.

Rebecca Wolff

Jonathan Lethem: What does a poet already know about the stuff of narrative fiction going in--about character, scene, "story"? What does she have to learn on the fly? How did that feel?

Rebecca Wolff: I’m not sure I can speak for all poets (in fact, I’m sure I can’t). Some are quite dedicated to narrative as a basic logical structure for their poems--think of the sort of poem that can be paraphrased: "I was mowing the lawn and then I saw this bird and it made me think of my lost freedoms; and then I saw this leaf fallen on the ground and it made me recall my imminent mortality in such a way that I no longer felt a pang at my lost freedoms." That poem provides an arc not at all unlike the arc of story, with scene, with character. I have never been exactly that kind of poet--I tend to think of my poetic impulse as being more ambient, more akin to a soundscape or dreamscape than a story line--but on the other hand I have always been a hungry consumer of narratives in the forms of novels and film. When I began The Beginners I instantly realized that the most significant tutelage I had absorbed from my reading of narratives was at the level of the sentence: How to begin and end a sentence, and what might go in the middle. So I still did have a seriously steep learning curve, and the first drafts of this novel were so haphazard as to be unredeemable. I had to actually learn that it was in my power to move characters and their story along by forcing them to do things, to say things, to pick up and put down things. When writing poems I prefer to rely on what feels like divine communion with language itself; and when writing a novel one must subscribe to, even love, the banal in a way that can make the complex weave of a story hang together.

Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem: New England already seems dotted with ominous, dreamlike, unreal literary places--the Lovecraft towns, the Shirley Jackson towns. Where's the town of Wick situated on the map of the real and the unreal?

Rebecca Wolff: Wick is exactly that town that you drive through and can’t believe you’re driving through, and that was exactly what made me want to write about it. It is directly based on an amalgamation of a very strange set of towns in central Massachusetts--I hope I’m not preemptively destroying the mystery of the fiction by disclosing this, but I just visited the area again last week so I’m full of the sense of it. One town is called Hardwick, and it is quite near a larger town called, I kid you not, Ware. The two are joined by a hamlet called Gilbertville. I drove through these towns quite often when I used to have to go from somewhere to somewhere else in Massachusetts and they were on the way, sort of--although part of the magic of them is that they are not really on the way anywhere at all, they are set off from anywhere, almost cut off, by the circumstances of their history as described in the novel. So I would be by myself, in the car, full of wonder and a sense of possibility at the question of what could bring anyone there, and who they would find if they arrived there--and that was the seed of the novel.

Jonathan Lethem: You're a descendent, and share part of your name, with one of the Salem "witches" featured in The Crucible. Is this a family matter?

Rebecca Wolff: It is, and this biographical fact is inherently related to questions the novel attempts to raise. Originally, I visited the three towns that became in my imagination Wick, because I was on the trail of my ancestors. My mother had told me that the remaining family of Rebecca Nurse, my ancestor, had moved to Hardwick after the witch trials had claimed the lives of their matriarch. So I went poking around looking for family names in the graveyards there, and what I found made me ask myself: What does it mean to be connected to a beautiful, lonely place by a tragic error? How real are connections that we feel to places, or to people? Is there a kind of magic in our often ephemeral sense of relationship, of connectedness, of history? (One of the main characters, Raquel, is a woman for whom there is no continuity.) Histories are, of course, stories, and so this story attempts to ask what it means to find meaning in stories, in "facts," in their infinite interpretation. Not to be too circular about it. The witch trials are a fascinating study in multiple subjectivities, and in the shifting nature of rationality, as the conviction of the people of Salem that certain behaviors could most reasonably be caused by consort with the Devil would be definitively contradicted soon after. Just as the conviction that the "afflicted girls," the teenagers who were given the power of accusation and upon whom the burden of proof also lay, were under the spell of Tituba, a slave, later shifted to a belief that they had eaten moldy grain and were hallucinating, and later again to a more sociologically determined reading of group hysteria. Semiotic, social, psychiatric, and religious historical treatments all smooth the path toward a reasoned understanding. But as a child growing up with the nominal connection to Rebecca, I was not so interested in these kinds of explanations, and instead immersed myself in the part of the story in which accusations were made, and lingered in that space before the accusations were denied. Though the texts I studied reported that, for example, one of Rebecca’s accusers had been seen to prick her own self with a pin just prior to crying out that Rebecca’s spirit had punctured her flesh, I was loath to dwell on these more prosaic passages. I wanted to be the descendent of a witch, not a victim.

Jonathan Lethem: Henry James. Shirley Jackson. Paula Fox. S. E. Hinton. I'm guessing wildly, but I have to ask you about influence. Pick two and discuss.

Rebecca Wolff: I like to describe The Beginners as a cross between Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and The Turn of the Screw. But seriously, I’d like to order a large James/Jackson combo. My sentences can be Jamesian, though I attempt to unwind them as much as I am able; my conviction that fiction is a perfect place for exploring what is otherworldly, in the midst of or just adjacent to this fabric of "reality," comes out of Jackson.

Jonathan Lethem: I had the feeling you were inspired to try to create real fear in your reader--or perhaps you scared yourself while writing it. Do you identify with "horror"?

Rebecca Wolff: I think being truly frightened is a formative experience for children, and is a foundational experience for the adults they become. Horror, the kind that we create most vividly in our imaginations, gives us yet another opportunity for the experience of finding relief--we run to our parents, we bury our faces in their laps. We find comfort in turning on the light, in being shown that there is nothing under the bed. Ginger, the fifteen-year-old narrator of The Beginners, is just coming out of that period of childish consciousness in which one is quite open to the possibilities of one’s own fancy, and to granting them credence. And just as she begins to feel the pressure of crossing over, she finds herself consorting with adults who occupy a dangerously liminal state and who produce or call out in her an absorption, a giving over to that childish consciousness, even as they call upon her to enter a realm of sexuality that is quite at odds with childhood.

I was very concerned that the book actually be scary. It was my worst fear that the book would simply gesture at fear, without truly evoking it in the reader. The act of writing, just like the act of reading, can be frightening--one necessarily leaves the realm of rationality, or anyway I do--and I was frightened at times writing this book (when I was not engaged with the more banal tasks of making characters pick up and put down their teacups). And I knew that that was exactly the sensation I wanted to create for the reader--as an opportunity for him or her to return or arrive at that kind of open consciousness, the capacity for belief. The book is in part an homage to fear.

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Dread and desire hang deliciously over every page of Wolff's gothic tale of an adolescent New England girl's unlikely education. Ginger is imaginative, her nose always in a book, and not as advanced, sexually or socially, as her best friend, Cherry, who wants to talk to boys rather than play castle at the abandoned mill. Ginger's family, meanwhile, has lived in a state of near suspended animation since the death of her older brother. But when an odd young couple walk into the cafe where Ginger works, she has her own entrée into a sophisticated world of frank sex talk and philosophical musings. The Motherwells, Raquel and Theo, say they are in town to research the town's past—witch trials, the legend of a town sunk beneath the reservoir—and they allow Ginger and Cherry, but mostly Ginger, into their strange cohort and a party to their sometimes alarming schemes. As Ginger starts avoiding most contact that does not involve the Motherwells, her shrinking world grows more sinister and seductive. Wolff conjures the state of smothering awe and fixation Ginger has for the Motherwells, and her twin needs to be wanted by them sexually and as a stand-in daughter lends a throbbing urgency to a novel as creepy as it is marvelous. (June)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 332 KB
  • Print Length: 300 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1594487995
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (June 30, 2011)
  • Publication Date: June 30, 2011
  • Sold by: Penguin Group (USA) LLC
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004LRPDYG
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #789,735 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A reader on July 11, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This novel reminded me in plot and tone of Joyce Carol Oates. The protagonist, Ginger, is an intelligent, observant, and under-supervised 15-year-old girl with one foot still firmly planted in childhood and the other, perhaps, with toes just touching the line of adulthood. Ginger falls under the thrall of newcomers to her backwater New England town, Theo and Raquel Motherwell, who strike her as beautiful, worldly, and incredibly attractive. Ginger is so drawn to the couple that she is willing to forgive their lies, indolence, and creepiness simply so that she can continue to be with them. As her loyalty to the Motherwells swells, she abandons her best friend, Cherry, misses more and more school, and calls in sick to her job in the diner. Ginger willingly goes along with the Motherwells as they prod her into adulthood, and the author does an incredible job of capturing the thoughts and feelings of a girl who knows on some level that she is treading down the wrong path, but desperately wants to see where it will end up and so keeps going anyway.

In the way that The Beginners presents a young girl's point of view on the dreams and nightmares of adulthood, I am reminded of Connie from Oates's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" As I read The Beginners, I kept wondering what would happen to Ginger, who welcomes her mistreatment at the hands of the Motherwells, especially Theo, and seems to make bad decision after bad decision. As the novel explores Ginger's thoughts, it all seems so plausible. Real teenagers find themselves just this passively--and even actively--swept into adult situations they cannot control or even fathom. The narrative style is both loaded with detail and elliptical, a combination that sometimes works and sometimes does not.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on July 5, 2011
Format: Hardcover
The coming-of-age story is a fundamental one in literature for many reasons, not in the least because each experience of adolescence, transition and emerging sexuality is at once highly personal and universal. From frank realism to sublime fantasy, the coming-of-age tale can be shaped into a variety of forms depending on the author. In Rebecca Wolff's hands, it's atmospheric, dark, thrilling and strange. THE BEGINNERS, her debut novel, follows 15-year-old Ginger Pritt as she's seduced by a young and eccentric couple who move to her small New England town.

Ginger seems like a young girl compared to her best friend, Cherry. Cherry is not only older but is more physically developed and already has had boyfriends. And though Ginger is interested in boys and sex, too, she has to be content with her examinations of the pornography her boss keeps stashed in the bathroom. The arrival of Theo and Raquel Motherwell both coincides with Ginger's sexual awakening and forces it. In either case, Ginger is drawn to them intellectually as well as physically, but their interest in her becomes a menacing power that is repulsive and yet compelling. Ginger is an imaginative girl, always with her nose in a book, and increasingly adrift in her world as her brother's death several years ago and Cherry's social maturity have left her isolated in her family and in school. Longing for physical and philosophical release, the attention of the Motherwells is something she revels in.

Even though Ginger cannot or will not see the Motherwells for who they are, readers begin to sense the impending destruction as she grows closer and closer to them and as Cherry is frightened away.
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23 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on August 18, 2011
Format: Hardcover
I generally like most books I read. They may not always be high literature (e.g. the Kendra Wilkinson book) or I may not like the subject matter (e.g. Push by Sapphire), but most of the time I can find something redeeming about a book. Not here. In fact, I dislike this book so much that I'm going to suspend with keeping the spoilers to myself because I want you to not waste your time on this book that much.

Here's a summary---
Fifteen year old Ginger lives in an average small Massachusetts town (I will give it to the author there --- her descriptions about the town were good enough that they brought back some pleasant memories of my time living in New England). When Raquel and Theo Motherwell, a 20 something couple, move into town Ginger thinks she's found her mentors. They are educated and take an interest in her. The couple tells her that they are doctoral candidates in history --- Theo specializing in the history of religion and Raquel in the Salem witch trials--- and that they moved to town to do research for their projects.

Up until this point in the book, I really thought it would be okay. The author's style came off as pretentious to me because she had the teenage narrator using way too many huge vocabulary words that no fifteen year old would ever use, but I was willing to read on.

Then, it just started getting weird. The Motherwells start putting Ginger in all these sexual situations that she brushes off as coincidental---like them going swimming naked at the reservoir in front of her. She overhears them having sex and suspects they may have known she was there and liked it. Just downright weird. Ginger starts thinking that she's encountering ghosts, but it's really the Motherwells messing with her.
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