Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss

Friendship isn’t easy. A friendship started in childhood has to grow and mature as do those in the relationship. No matter how dear someone is to you, there will be bumps in the road. Misunderstandings. Arguments. Hurts. But when a friendship is solid, it will weather these because it must. Aria Beth Sloss’s new novel, Autobiography of Us, is a tale of just such a friendship, one started young, one that must endure betrayal and estrangement, but one that ultimately knits itself back together because it is too hard, impossible really, to let it go.

Rebecca is a bit of a loner, quiet, introverted, smart, and scientifically minded. She’s always wanted to be a doctor, even though in the early 1960s in Pasadena, California, this is not a usual or likely goal for a girl. When she meets Alexandra, she is immediately drawn to Alex and she is thrilled to be chosen to be the magnetic Alex’s best friend. Alex is outgoing and a bit wild, popular and set on becoming an actress. When the two young women go off to college, they go as best of friends although they do start to drift apart on their different trajectories. While Rebecca is studious and single-minded about eventually going to medical school, Alex is much more social, collecting a coterie of friends.  When Rebecca makes a mistake at a friends’ wedding, it shatters their long-standing friendship and changes Rebecca’s entire life trajectory. And it will take many years before the two women come back together again to tentatively rekindle their friendship.

The historical period of time during which the two of them come of age is well drawn and compelling. Sloss has set her novel in a time of great social upheaval when options for women were still constrained and narrow but were about to widen unimagineably. And in this still repressed setting with its seemingly immutable gender roles, Sloss tackles many difficult and contentious issues: abortion, abuse, adultery, mental illness. And she weaves all of this into a tale centered on the nature of friendship, what relationship can endure without cracking wide open and the lengths that a friend will go to, even if just in memory of what the friendship used to be.

Although the title of the book is Autobiography of Us, much of the book takes place when there is no us except in memory. Even in beginning, the "us" that there is is not quite convincing. The friendship between Rebecca and Alex often feels one-sided with Alex using Rebecca to bolster her own self-esteem, always enjoying the mild hero-worship of her friend, appreciating her built in audience. She’s selfish and demanding and difficult and yet Rebecca continues to love her as her very best friend, wanting, in a way, to be Alex or at least to be more like her. Neither of these women are particularly likable, except perhaps to each other. Rebecca is a doormat and Alex is manipulative, making it hard for the reader to feel much sympathy for either of them. There is little real depth to their friendship and it remains a mystery why these two are in fact as close as the story says. Told from Rebecca’s point of view, the narrative proceeds in fits and starts with large missing chunks of time, akin to pictures missing from a photo album. The ending does reveal the reason why the story is told as it is and changes quite a lot but the payoff may not be big enough. Although there are some flaws here, the novel shows the lack of choices for women of their age and time and will make readers reflect on just what does make a lasting friendship and the nature of friendship in their own lives.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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