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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.
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.
Praise for Cambridge…
“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.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“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