By Susanna Kaysen
Knopf. 258 pp. $25.95
Susanna Kaysen is the author — and the girl — of “Girl, Interrupted” (1993), her affecting memoir about her stint as a psychiatric patient in Massachusetts in 1967. Though she was treated for depression and eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, the book (later a movie starring Winona Ryder) managed a wry sort of humor.
Kaysen brings that same appealing style to her memoir-like third novel, “Cambridge.” It’s a quiet story that follows a petulant little girl named Susanna, our narrator, as she travels awkwardly from pre-adolescence to tweendom. Like Kaysen, Susanna is raised by academic parents in Cambridge, Mass., and lives a privileged-if-not-exactly-happy 1950s childhood. Its chapters record the family’s disruptive moves, based on Susanna’s father’s various job postings, to England and Italy, then later to Greece and back to the States.
While traveling, she longs for home, or at least the idea of it. She’s often despondent and almost comically passive-aggressive toward her teachers and her well-coiffed, accomplished mother. “I was up against the impotence of being a child,” Susanna says, describing her year as a second-grader at a Dickensian English school, where her rebellion takes the form of refusing to learn the multiplication tables or bathe.
The most poignant passages unspool in Greece, where 10-year-old Susanna tries to ignore her growing “breast-things.” She also wallows in feelings of inadequacy, which the country’s rich history bizarrely seems to compound: Touring some dusty, ancient ruins with her family, she recalls how their longevity “made me both dizzy and mad.”
If “Cambridge” sounds plotless, there’s a reason for that. It is. 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. “I didn’t like life,” Susanna realizes as one perfect Cape Cod summer draws to a close. “Life was always something new. I didn’t like something new. I liked the same thing over and over.”
“Cambridge” is also about nostalgia and the tricks of memory. Every recollection contains an element of fiction, though Susanna’s clearly have more than most. When we leave her at age 11, she’s standing in her Cambridge back yard after dinner, a “booming, echoing feeling in my chest, a throbby sort of feeling. . . . My childhood — it was gone! But it hadn’t been wonderful.” What was wonderful, she concludes, was “standing alone in the big, soft night rewriting the past to make myself miss what had never been.”
Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington.