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Cambridge Hardcover – Deckle Edge, March 18, 2014
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Intrusion: A Novel
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“Susanna Kaysen is a wonderful writer. The protagonist of Cambridge, also named Susanna, [is] a bright, sensitive, 1950s elementary school student, getting in the way of herself and others. By the time she’s nine, she’s already mourning her lost youth. At school, she’s bored. She explains, ‘my capacity for disappointing people was bigger than their capacity for putting up with me.’ Susanna is, in other words, the kind of child who will grow up to be a writer. And although Cambridge is often funny, Kaysen resists portraying her narrator’s eccentricities in a precious way; Susanna is truly, convincingly, gloomy and weird . . . Her parents [had] humble beginnings [but] adapted comfortably to a more rarefied life, with dinner guests including potential Nobel winners; the novel’s unapologetic attitude toward privilege can seem refreshing . . . If you’ve ever lived in Cambridge, or just wanted to, there’s a decent chance you’ll embrace the book . . . The best way to enjoy its many charms is to accept it as an idiosyncratic memoir . . . Every page contains terrific sentences full of vivid, surprising descriptions . . . It’s a testament to Kaysen’s honesty that she won’t give false comfort to either her characters or her readers.” —Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times Book Review
“Kaysen’s skills of both the memoirist and novelist are at play in Cambridge, which might be described as a memoir and a half—a real-life story that has been fleshed out with dialogue and details . . . Kaysen is adept at reproducing the child’s voice, not an easy thing to do in fiction or memoir, to translate the observations of a child. She has succeeded here marvelously . . . Yet we also get the author’s present-day perspective; she’s gotten it exactly right, balancing these voices . . . Susanna reports in words that the adult writer may have stitched together, but which still contain the spirit of the spunky, perceptive child she was.” —Betty J. Cotter, Providence Journal
“Delightful and moving . . .Cambridge is a novel, which means the author has given herself license to embellish. But the delights of the book do not arise from embellishment. Cambridge is a superbly recollected and recounted memoir of childhood, the pleasures along with the tremors and doubts. The book may bring back your own childhood, and, with it, memories of place—for Kaysen, a certain Cambridge—for which you have no less poignant feelings.” —Harvey Blume, The Arts Fuse
“Poignant . . . Kaysen, the author of Girl, Interrupted, her affecting memoir about her stint as a psychiatric patient in 1967, [had] a wry humor, [and] Kaysen brings that same appealing style to her memoir-like third novel, Cambridge. It’s not an epic or a page-turner, but it succeeds as a wisely observed story about leaving childhood—both its humiliating powerlessness and its blissful innocence—whether you want to or not . . . It is also about nostalgia, and the tricks of memory. Every recollection contains an element of fiction. When we leave her at age 11, Susanna is standing in her Cambridge back yard after dinner, a ‘booming, echoing feeling in my chest . . . My childhood—it was gone!’ What was wonderful, she concludes, was ‘standing alone in the night, rewriting the past to make myself miss what had never been.’” —Christina Ianzito, The Washington Post
“A tale of childhood that is also very much about place . . . Susanna’s observations of [the] entertaining ensemble cast are often funny, equally often sad, always astute . . . An exquisite little book full of descriptions and anecdotes that shimmer like fireflies on a dark July night.” —Patricia Hagen, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“With Cambridge’s careful attention to scene-setting, Kaysen writes interiors that belong on the set of a Wes Anderson movie . . . Typically novels demonstrate how a character grows, changes, and adapts to new adventures. Cambridge pushes against this notion. With change comes loss. Childhood happens only once. It might be great or it might be awful or it might be ordinary, but once we reach adulthood, it’s gone.” —Rebecca Kelley, The Rumpus
“Lively, charming . . . Throughout, Kaysen captures well the sense of what it’s like to feel the world as a child.” —John Williams, The New York Times
“Cambridge is not so much about the city to the north of Boston as it is about belonging to it . . . Susanna’s fascination with the people around her is sweet, and her notes on the injustices and conventions of girlhood—math homework and hair-braiding—are relatable and keenly observed. The writing here is natural and absorbing . . . There seems to be a lot simmering under the surface of this book . . . A fascinating study of the ways in which communities define themselves.” –Molly Labell, Bust
“In Cambridge, an astute young girl observes the adults and events in her life, trying to make sense of how she might fit in—or whether she wants to . . . Susanna’s name is almost never mentioned in the story, a well-crafted technique that powerfully adds to the sense of who she is—or isn’t. Susanna’s voice is Cambridge’s major strength. A touching narrative of coming of age and everyday life.” –Carol Brill, New York Journal of Books
“Eloquent, nostalgic . . . precise and thoughtful.” —Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
“With Cambridge, Kaysen is writing about a personal theme, her hometown, where she has lived for most of her life . . . The novel is a portrait—almost a still life—of the city in the 1950s, revolving around a dreamy girl and her intellectual, worldly parents. Kaysen grew up among the academics and artists of Cambridge, too, the eccentric characters who socialized with her mother and her economist father, Carl Kaysen, a highly respected professor first at Harvard, then at MIT. But even though Cambridge is heavily autobiographical (the young heroine’s name is Susanna), it is fiction, a decision Kaysen made to help her in the writing process [and] enabled her to invent.” —Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe
“Elegant, remarkable. The experience of reading Cambridge, the story of a girl growing up in the 1950s, feels like settling back into a warm chair after an absence . . . Novels-from-life like Cambridge often contain their own brand of wisdom. They are books whose use of the techniques of fiction seems to have an almost political purpose: namely, to make mundane realities worth inscribing in print. And there is something very noble about insisting that there is art in those experiences we would not necessarily call novelistic. And in then being totally honest about the way in which we tend to shape and revise the stories we tell ourselves . . . There is indeed something uniquely worth recording not just about one’s childhood, but about the way in which we spend our lives revising it into such outlines.” —Michelle Dean, Slate
“The original Girl, Interrupted, Susanna Kaysen, comes full circle with Cambridge, the fondly nostalgic story of a professor’s daughter with an acute case of apartness—a born writer—and her induction into a world of art, travel, and, with the help of a charismatic orchestra conductor named Vishwa, love.” —Megan O’Grady, Vogue
“This latest novel from Kaysen follows a character named Susanna from the second to the sixth grade, taking her through four countries, a Swedish nanny, and a Brahman piano teacher who never makes her play. Susanna is a curious girl whose travels often leave her awestruck. She leads an unconventional life and is not happy about it. Awkward and lonely, she has only one friend her age . . . What she does love is the English language, and Susanna’s facility with language allows Kaysen to create tension and humor.” —Pamela Mann, Library Journal
“Touching . . . Loosely based on the author’s own childhood, this travelogue is narrated by a nine-year-old who must spend two years living in England, Italy, and Greece despite her fervent wish to be home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I really enjoyed the book, which reads a bit like a journal. I loved the narrator’s bittersweet realization that ‘home’ isn’t a physical locale, but rather a place that exists only in memories.” —Sarai Narvaez, Real Simple
“This raw, biting autobiographical novel from the author of Girl, Interrupted frequently lights up to the point of incandescence with subtle descriptions and astute, witty anecdotes [as] Susanna, a young girl with complicated parental relations, recalls her formative years, traveling from English shores to Grecian temples. A literary tour-de-force displaying Kaysen’s unique talent for creating an engaging ensemble cast that comes uniquely alive under adolescent eyes . . . Affectingly real.” —Publishers Weekly
Top Customer Reviews
The author of 'Girl, Interrupted' offers some foreshadowing of the teenager she is to become. She talks of feeling "empty, blank, nobodyness." "I knew that inside me was an indigestible nastiness, which was bound to poke through and kill anything nice that had managed to grow between me and somebody else." As a fourth grader Susanna feels turmoil. "I could see that my will to failure was an ambition." I could see the seeds of her young adulthood blooming in her early youth.
There are stories of Frederika, her loving nanny and part of the family, and Vishwa, a conductor who courts Frederika and tries to bestow a love of music in Susanna. Her parents' moodiness and distance are painful to Susanna who feels invisible once her sister is born.
Despite the book's potential, it does not come to fruition. The writing is choppy and disconnected and left me with a feeling of distance from the protagonist and the other characters. A story of events is told but the descriptions of inner life lacked the depth and immediacy of 'Girl, Interrupted".
Susanna is the older daughter of a Harvard academic family. Her father is a left-leaning (shocking for Cambridge!) professor of economics whose opinions are valued in many places around the globe, so the family travels often during Susanna's formative years. While it is clear that this girl is seldom ever comfortable in her skin or in any place she goes, she has constructed am imaginary happy home nest in Cambridge, Massachusetts - her nesting place - to which she longs to return from the family's several peregrinations to the cradles of Western civilization.
She is unhappy in Cambridge, England, in Italy, and in Greece. She hates school, and she conducts a silent civil war with her mother, partly because she and her mother are so much alike that the mother always knows what she is thinking and feeling. This situation is intolerable to her, because she wants to be more like her father.
Susanna is not a very likable narrator or protagonist, but her descriptions of persons, places and situations are so insightful and interesting, that I was compelled to keep reading. It certainly did not hurt that with the exception of her time in Greece, she is describing in vivid detail places that I know and love: Cambridge, Florence, Cape Cod.
Her description of the unexpected and troubling sudden appearance of menarche is particularly poignant.Read more ›
So Cambridge, Massachusetts, is what Susannah knows. Even though she is bored by school, at least it’s a known quantity to her. When Susannah is in third grade, her father takes a sabbatical to England, and she sees Cambridge, England – to her great disappointment.
After the sabbatical, the family does return to Massachusetts, but Susannah still isn’t happy. Her beloved Swedish nanny remained behind in Europe, school is as dull as ever, and she and her friends have changed.
Later in this novel, the family spends some time in Greece because Susannah’s father has been selected to try to help the Greek economy get back on its feet. Susannah seems happier there than she was in England, but it’s still not Cambridge, and she’s experiencing the throes of early adolescence, made worse by the fact that it is summertime and very hot in Greece. (Note: This novel contains thorough descriptions of Susannah’s thoughts about her developing body, so even though a young person is the protagonist, this book is not for young people.)
This novel reads as if it were written by a precocious youngster Susannah’s age. She makes particular note of her parents’ apparent inconsistencies about house rules and is unafraid to let her emotions show. Susannah’s thoughts do seem at times to go from one thing to another, but even adults’ (much less youngsters’!) minds can wander.
This novel kept my interest because of what Susannah learns: Home may be home, but can someone really go back home again?
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A quirky book, it was my cup of tea. I liked the narrator's descriptions of her contrary moods as well as those of sights she saw and felt in Italy, Greece, London, and Cambridge.Published 2 months ago by Jake Stanley
The writing is clear and interesting. I like the voice and perspective of the child. The details make the reader feel like they are traveling to many counties with the character. Read morePublished 12 months ago by RUTH BLOCK
Kaysen is pitch perfect in her voice of an adolescent trying to make sense of the world, her family and her place in it. Read morePublished 15 months ago by jjm
I kept waiting for a plotline to develop and then....the book ended. Also, very poor character development. Read morePublished 16 months ago by Paige
Cambridge is an entertaining story about a girl growing up in the 1950s through sixth grade. She goes through things that every person deals with, like figuring out her role in her... Read morePublished 18 months ago by Samantha Glasser
Ms Kaysen brought back many memories of childhood in Cambridge. She then expanded her memories as she traveled with her professor father and gave us a short course in the wonders... Read morePublished 22 months ago by Grace E. Bush