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Cambridge

Cover of Cambridge

Cambridge

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"It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did . . ."

So begins this novel-from-life by the best-selling author of Girl, Interrupted, an exploration of memory and nostalgia set in the 1950s among the academics and artists of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, the precocious narrator of Cambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the locations to which her father's career takes the family. She comes home with relief--but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition.

Written with a sharp eye for the pretensions--and charms--of the intellectual classes, Cambridge captures the mores of an era now past, the ordinary lives of extraordinary people in a singular part of America, and the delights, fears, and longings of childhood.

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
"It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did . . ."

So begins this novel-from-life by the best-selling author of Girl, Interrupted, an exploration of memory and nostalgia set in the 1950s among the academics and artists of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

London, Florence, Athens: Susanna, the precocious narrator of Cambridge, would rather be home than in any of these places. Uprooted from the streets around Harvard Square, she feels lost and excluded in all the locations to which her father's career takes the family. She comes home with relief--but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition.

Written with a sharp eye for the pretensions--and charms--of the intellectual classes, Cambridge captures the mores of an era now past, the ordinary lives of extraordinary people in a singular part of America, and the delights, fears, and longings of childhood.

This eBook edition includes a Reading Group Guide.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book

    It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did. I fell in love with the city, the way you fall in love with a person, and suffered during the many separations I endured.In the summer before our October departure for England, the screen door to the backyard broke and had to be replaced. The new door had a hydraulic canister that hissed when it opened or closed instead of smacking, thump, thump, the way the old door had. I didn't like this. Neither did my cat, Pinch. Cats and children are conservative. Pinch would use the new door to go out of the house, but she refused to come in through it, and she'd sit by the front door waiting for someone to notice that she'd decided it was time to come home. After three weeks in England, I felt the same way: Okay, let's go home now. It's time to go home. But my parents, looking out their new, hydraulic door to England, didn't notice me, and like Pinch I had to sit there hoping and hoping.

    For my father it was a kind of homecoming. He'd spent the war in London analyzing aerial reconnaissance photographs of German cities to pick targets for the Air Force. Midnights, he and his comrades stood on the roof of the townhouse where they were billeted and watched the bombs fall, heedless, twenty-two and abroad for the first time. The damask and mahogany hotels, the parks and the Embankment, the Rosetta Stone back from where it had been hiding from the Luftwaffe--now he could show all this, his former kingdom, to my mother.

    My mother was preoccupied with the oven. She'd been forewarned that there wasn't any heat; nobody had mentioned the oven. The burners worked, but the oven was in a coma. She enshrouded a whole chicken in aluminum foil (aluminium in England) and roasted it over the coals in the living room fireplace in an attempt to make a nice dinner--a nice dinner being something other than a greasy chop or noodles (this was the era before noodles became pasta). It was a failure. It was a poached chicken, pallid, wet, raw in places. The oven, the oven. When was my father going to get somebody to explain or fix the oven?

    My father had gone to France for the day to get us a car. It was a tiny English car named a Hillman. How or why it had emigrated to France was unknown. He went with a friend who was a French count, who had found us the car. Why my parents had a friend who was a French count and how they had finagled him into finding them an English car in France were not questions I asked at the age of seven. The car, my father, and the count all appeared at our London doorstep just as my mother was unveiling the disastrous chicken she'd made as a thank-you dinner for the count.

    But they were young and full of life and they went out for dinner instead, leaving me with the somber Swedish nanny who made noodles on the stovetop.

    Nanny is a misnomer. Frederika was my mother's aide-de-camp. She came from an aristocratic Swedish family. Her father had dropped the von in solidarity with Socialist ideals. She had little experience of stovetop noodles, either eating or cooking them. It turned out when she came to live with us in Cambridge that she was a marvelous cook, but she needed six fresh herring or a whole side of salmon or a handful of cardamom and a long twisty ginger root to do her Swedish magic. Barely ten years after the war, England didn't supply this sort of thing. Noodles and candy, with the occasional tough hunk of mutton, was what was on offer.

    She was only eighteen. I thought of her as a grownup, but she was a kid away from home for the first time, just like me. Our family must have been a puzzle to her....

About the Author-
  • Susanna Kaysen has written the novels Asa, As I Knew Him and Far Afield and the memoirs Girl, Interrupted and The Camera My Mother Gave Me. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    January 20, 2014
    Susanna, a “cranky and difficult” young girl with complicated parental relations, recalls her formative years, traveling from English shores to Grecian temples, in this fictional memoir, which, as the title implies, focuses on the period she and her academic parents lived in Cambridge, Mass. Despite the somewhat predictable nature of Susanna’s feelings (“They’d be sorry when I froze to death two blocks away, a pathetic little creature with only my bicycle for a friend”) and the lengthy digressions on topics like piano lessons, 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. The depiction of the courtship between Susanna’s piano teacher and her Swedish nanny, Frederika, in which the narrator’s mother and a few other key characters play strong supporting roles, is a literary tour-de-force, neatly displaying Kaysen’s unique talent for creating an engaging ensemble cast that comes uniquely alive under adolescent eyes: “Mascara, a swipe of red lipstick, and a dab of rouge could transform Frederika into a monster in two minutes. It was terrifying.” Susanna may not be the most likeable young girl, and she certainly spends a good deal of time wallowing in self-pity (“I could keep growing and thinking and reading in secret, in my dark, sorry-for-myself basement of failure and neglect, like a little rat”), but for Kaysen and her legion of fans, the focus on adolescence is a theme that works. And why not? Sometimes, parental neglect or some other sad reality is just a fact of life, and the effects are, unfortunately, affectingly real.

  • Heller McAlpin, NPR "Twenty years after the publication of Girl, Interrupted, Kaysen's excoriating memoir about the nearly two years she spent in a psychiatric institution at the end of her teens, she's written a sort of prequel. Cambridge, her unflinching, elegiac, quasi-autobiographical new novel, takes us back to the mid-to-late 1950s with a portrait of Susanna as a difficult 7-to-11-year-old at odds with her family, her teachers and herself. The result is both fascinating and heartbreaking, because we know where her abiding unhappiness is going to land her. Verbally gifted, mathematically challenged young Susanna is precocious right down to her moodiness and resentment . . . Kaysen totally nails the dynamic between the sultry pre-adolescent daughter and the sometimes curt mother who, irritatingly, is nearly always right . . . By labeling her clearly personal new book a novel, Kaysen frees herself to shape her material for maximum effect. Her prose is chiseled and powerful . . . Cambridge is steeped in nostalgia--a melancholic ache not just for times Susanna has known, but for times she wishes she'd known . . . But Kaysen doesn't fabricate a happy childhood in Cambridge. Instead, she peels back memories to expose the colossal, obdurate 'colonnaded marble spine' of a lost youth."
  • Curtis Sittenfeld, The New York Times Book Review "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."
  • Christina Ianzito, The Washington Post "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.'"
  • Patricia Hagen, Minneapolis Star Tribune "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."
  • Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly "Eloquent, nostalgic . . . precise and thoughtful."
  • Matthew Gilbert, The Boston Globe "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 he
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