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An Actual Life

An Actual Life

4.3 3
by Abigail Thomas

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Virginia and Buddy "had to get married." Their daughter, Madeline, was conceived the first time they "did it" in Buddy's room at college. Virginia's college asked her to leave. Her parents put on a wedding. And now? Well, as Virginia puts it, "now that we know each other a little better it turns out we are actually strangers." Set in 1960, AN ACTUAL LIFE, is about the


Virginia and Buddy "had to get married." Their daughter, Madeline, was conceived the first time they "did it" in Buddy's room at college. Virginia's college asked her to leave. Her parents put on a wedding. And now? Well, as Virginia puts it, "now that we know each other a little better it turns out we are actually strangers." Set in 1960, AN ACTUAL LIFE, is about the second summer of Buddy and Virginia's marriage. There's no money, no love, no foreseeable future. They both try hard, but Virginia is all of nineteen and Buddy only just past twenty and neither one has a clue how to make this misbegotten marriage work. The way it ends is both a complete surprise and utterly inevitable.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In her first novel, Thomas, who began writing at age 50 after a career as a literary agent and editor, displays the same incisive character portrayal and bantering prose that readers enjoyed in her collection of short stories, Getting Over Tom. Here, she has taken one of those stories, about the shotgun wedding of college students Virginia and Buddy in 1960, and produced a spirited and often very funny novel about their horrendous marriage. The events, related in Virginia's voice, take place mostly in the house of Buddy's sweet, goofy Aunt Dot, in Buddy's New Jersey hometown. Virginia's life now revolves around her baby, Madeline-which is a good thing, since Buddy is sneaking around with his longtime love and ex-girlfriend, the truck-driving, heavily made-up Irene, who happens to be married to his best friend. Although she doesn't love Buddy and bravely accepts Irene's attempts at friendship, Virginia is still hurt by Buddy's infidelity. Ultimately, she must decide whether she will conform to what her family-and even Buddy himself-expect: that she stay in a loveless marriage for the sake of the baby. Thomas does a masterful job in portraying Virginia: she is terribly nave, has little sense of herself, is uptight, sexually prudish and superstitious. Yet she is also a very young woman stuck in a rotten situation, and her spunky, if often clueless, attempts to make the best of things-and to discover what she wants-are endearing and compelling. (May)
Library Journal
Virginia and Buddy married young because they had to: Virginia conceived the night she lost her virginity. Now she is trapped in a loveless marriage. Buddy remains in love with his high school sweetheart, whom he continues to see on the sly. This novel chronicles Virginia's attempts to make the marriage work, against all odds. Consumed with both tender maternal feelings toward her daughter, Maddie, and the unfulfilled longings of a young, romantic girl, Virginia struggles with her self-esteem as Buddy fails to show any interest in her. She has the support of loving parents and Buddy's aunt, but they aren't privy to her private angst. Thomas (Getting Over Tom, Algonquin, 1994) weaves a good story, beautifully capturing the jaded innocence and idealism of Virginia. The tale is simple and sad, but Virginia triumphs in the end, so the reader is not left dejected. Recommended for public libraries.-Kimberly G. Allen, MCI Corporate Information Resources Ctr., Washington, D.C .
School Library Journal
YAThe tie that binds Buddy and Virginia is not starry-eyed amor; it is stark obligation to Maddie, their almost one-year-old daughter. She was conceived in a college dormitory in 1960; clearly, the act stemmed more from curiosity on the part of her parents than from passion. When Virginia found out she was pregnant, she gladly left college and married Buddy. He continued with school. During summer break, which is when the novel begins, the family moves in with Buddy's aunt so that he can earn money painting houses. There he is reunited with his childhood sweetheart, Irene, for whom he still pines. Virginia's chattiness, quaint superstitions, and proper opinions are appreciated by Buddy's pal Chick, who is Irene's husband. Virginia knows something is missing in her marriage. She and Maddie visit her parents, and she finds contentment all around her; she returns to Hadley determined to seize her share of it. Instead, revelations about Buddy's past and present desires for Irene come to light, and a swap seems to be in the making as Chick moves closer to Virginia, but the author leaves readers guessing as to whether that convenient twist will come about. YAs will sail along with Virginia's well-expressed thoughts and choices. The story's characters are kookie at times, but then, so is young love.Judy Sokoll, formerly at Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Michele Leber
In her critically praised short story collection "Getting Over Tom" (1994), Thomas introduced Virginia and Buddy, who had to get married in 1959 after their sexual encounter in Buddy's dorm room. In her first novel, Thomas picks up the young couple's story after daughter Madeleine's birth, back in Buddy's hometown of Hedley, New Jersey, where his high-school sweetheart, Irene, is now married to his best friend, Chick. Virginia's narrative is both funny and poignant as she delights in daughter Maddie, worries that Buddy still loves Irene, fantasizes romance with other men, and admits that now that she and Buddy know each other better, they are actually strangers. A visit with her parents, intended as a vacation Virginia needs, serves instead to illuminate the minister father and prissy mother who raised her and to contrast her parents' marriage with her own. "Ours just sits there and blows hot air. It isn't good for anything at all." With Thomas' fresh style and pointed one-liners, this is a winning literary debut with an ending that hints the story may continue.
Kirkus Reviews
Virginia and Buddy, the college couple who "had to" get married in Thomas's debut collection, Getting Over Tom (1994), are back, a year older and initially no wiser.

The summer of 1960 is sizzling, but every bit of heat has gone out of this young couple's marriage as they return with their almost year-old daughter, Madeline, to Buddy's hometown, Hadley, New Jersey, to stay with his Aunt Dot. Right away, Virginia finds confirmation of her old suspicion that Buddy is still deeply attached to his old high-school girlfriend, Irene. It doesn't seem to slow the two down that Irene is now married to Buddy's good friend Chick. As the summer progresses, Virginia finds herself more and more estranged from her silent, moody husband. She flees for a while to Massachusetts to stay with her parents, but when it becomes clear that they aren't going to provide her with a way out, Virginia heads back to Buddy to try once more. On the surface, this is disarmingly simple stuff—the perils of young marriage. But Thomas mines deeper and delivers more. Her depiction of Virginia's parents, not quite callous but exquisitely bundled in their own self-absorption, is chilling and wonderful. Irene and Buddy too, to a lesser degree, grow beyond their easy-to-hate adulterous roles into more complex characters. And, finally, there is Virginia herself, who narrates in a voice that's right on pitch for a 19- year-old mother in 1960: self-righteous, slightly priggish, and, at times, heartbreakingly naive. The changes she makes as she goes along are tiny but meaningful, and by the close—an ending that both is and isn't a surprise—we see that Virginia, who started out as a bit of a dim bulb, may be a firecracker after all.

The aftermath of a 1950s shotgun marriage may not be a new story, but this one, quietly told, resonates in a powerful way. A heartfelt first novel.

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Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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An Actual Life 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Okay, I loved Abigail Thomas' other book 'Getting Over Tom' it was wonderful, and this book wasn't bad but the ending left me saying, no, screaming 'WHAT?!?!', I have no idea what just happened, none whatsoever, I think my jaw is hanging open, it's probably really simple too. Someone explain it to me please.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I really loved this book. It makes you think about young life. I pictured myself in her shoes...what I would do differently...what I would do the same? And the ending was just perfect!
Guest More than 1 year ago
All I have to say about this book, is that is the best book that I've ever read.