- 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 (103 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,251,019 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Autobiography of Us: A Novel Hardcover – February 5, 2013
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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
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.
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Top customer reviews
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.
Their sense of confusion and frustration is expressed so poignantly when Alexandra and Rebecca ask one another how their mothers managed- how on earth they coped and survived in their marriages and domestic life. The culture was changing but that left a betwixt and between time and it was challenging. Author Aria Beth Sloss captures this time very well.
Alexandra and Rebecca kept some major secrets from the other through the years and their communication had dry spells. And then there is a shocker of an ending, one I didn't see coming. If you're looking for the type of book that engulfs you, gives historical perspective, and then leaves you reeling, I urge you to put this on your " must read" list.
AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF US is told in a lyrical voice of Rebecca Madden, a quiet "house-poor" girl in Pasadena, Calif. who befriends the outrageous and vivacious Alexandra Carrington in the 1950s. Rebecca tells a mysterious figure about the ups and downs of their friendship as they get shoved up the bars of the infamous "gilded cage" that trapped women for the early parts of the 20th century (and arguably, still does).
As I read, I was constantly wondering if I had missed something (I'm a careful reader, so that's a rare one for me). Both characters drop their dreams after years of fighting for ... no apparent reason. It is not explained whether a sexual encounter with a known abuser was rape or not. The narrator is dealt with a bombshell about her parents' marraige and ... never mentions it again.
Leaving room for interpretation is fine, but it shouldn't be so much room that you can fit an entire airport in it. After a certain point, I was so confused that it sapped all of the enjoyment of reading.
I happen to love mysteries--particularly ones where you do a lot of your own thinking--but ... all good mysteries have some kind of purpose to it. This book was a meandering and purposeless exhortation aganist the gilded cage of the mid-century upper-class American womens. It has been done and done better, unfortunately.
The style is pretty cool, though.