Autobiography of Us: A Novel
  • Autobiography of Us: A Novel
  • Autobiography of Us: A Novel

Autobiography of Us: A Novel

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by Aria Beth Sloss

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A gripping debut novel about friendship, loss and love; a confession of what passed between two women who met as girls in 1960s Pasadena, California

Coming of age in the patrician neighborhood of Pasadena, California during the 1960s, Rebecca Madden and her beautiful, reckless friend Alex dream of lives beyond their mothers' narrow expectations. Their

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A gripping debut novel about friendship, loss and love; a confession of what passed between two women who met as girls in 1960s Pasadena, California

Coming of age in the patrician neighborhood of Pasadena, California during the 1960s, Rebecca Madden and her beautiful, reckless friend Alex dream of lives beyond their mothers' narrow expectations. Their struggle to define themselves against the backdrop of an American cultural revolution unites them early on, until one sweltering evening the summer before their last year of college, when a single act of betrayal changes everything. Decades later, Rebecca's haunting meditation on the past reveals the truth about that night, the years that followed, and the friendship that shaped her.

Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss is an achingly beautiful portrait of a decades-long bond. A rare and powerful glimpse into the lives of two women caught between repression and revolution, it casts new light on the sacrifices, struggles, victories and defeats of a generation.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
Autobiography of Us is more artful and less awkward than it first seems. Rebecca's guilelessness gives this platonic love affair a credibility it might otherwise lack. And with surprising ease, the book plays out the friends' complicated dynamic against a tableau of enormous changes for women, resulting in a potent story of altered expectations and thwarted dreams…To her credit, [Sloss] does not frame an easy contrast between Alex's fate and Rebecca's; she writes compassionately about both of them and avoids glib judgment…A book that begins unremarkably blossoms in stirring and surprising ways.
Publishers Weekly
A smooth first-person narrative about two best friends who come of age in 1960s Pasadena marks Sloss's layered debut novel. Alex is beautiful, theatrical, and comes from wealth. Introspective, secretive, and brainy narrator Rebecca lives "house-poor" with her earnest father and beautiful, thrifty mother, who wants her daughter to have what she lost during the Depression. Once inseparable, the friends strike out on different paths at their college and a total break occurs after junior year. The incident, involving lies, alcohol, and some bad judgment, changes Rebecca's relationship with her parents as well. Stifled by early '60s sexism, she grows passive, marrying Paul, a genial, patrician New York lawyer. Despite achieving her mother's goals, her marriage is a sham and her small life revolves around her two sons and the letters she writes to Alex but never sends. Home for her mother's funeral, Rebecca reconnects with her one-time best friend, but she begins to see the insignificance of her life. Here the narrative accelerates as it builds toward the chaotic dénouement. The story's hopeful end is tempered with the realization that, had the central characters been born a generation later, maybe their lives would have been better. Agent: Claudia Ballard, WME Entertainment. (Feb.)
author of Seating Arrangements Maggie Shipstead

Some friendships are fated, not chosen. Aria Beth Sloss's gorgeous first novel deftly and richly exposes the lasting hope as well as the inevitable wounds that come from great love. Raw and vital, Autobiography of Us leaves us marveling at the strange, beautiful architecture of redemption.

[A] delicate, bittersweet story.

Aria Beth Sloss's powerful novel flashes back to the '60s, when young women's choices seemed limited and female friendships were fragile life-lines. You'll find this story both moving and engrossing.
The New York Times

With surprising ease, the book plays out the friends' complicated dynamic against a tableau of enormous changes for women, resulting in a potent story of altered expectations and thwarted dreams…A book that gains momentum with each new choice and crisis…[Autobiography of Us] blossoms in stirring and surprising ways.
The Oprah Magazine O

[A] sharply imagined debut...Sloss writes with assured grace, capturing the conflicted sensibilities of a generation of women.
More Magazine

Every female friendship has a script of its own. The one playing out in this debut novel is a gripping hybrid--Beaches crossed with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
author of Easter Island and Strangers at the Feast Jennifer Vanderbes

A fiercely intelligent and captivating debut and an intimate portrait of female friendship, Autobiography of Us illuminates the challenges faced by an entire generation of American women.
Shelf Awareness

At its heart, the novel is a tragic elegy to spirited women in decades past who were forced to silence their dreams and desires, and whose lives were not what they might otherwise have been.
author of A Short History of Women and Our Kind Kate Walbert

A masterly portrait of the lives of two indelible characters, one 'good' girl, one 'bad,' Aria Beth Sloss's fiercely imagined Autobiography of Us is a wrenching, provocative story of thwarted friendship, ambition, and love. It marks a stunning debut from a bold new talent.
author of The Story of a Marriage and The Confessi Andrew Sean Greer

In Aria Beth Sloss's marvelous debut novel, the passage of time brings love and pain and friendship, then reverses them all--a brilliant chronicle of women's lives in America.
author of Lucy and Next to Love Ellen Feldman

A heartrending novel of two girls, the women they become, and the bond they forge that endures into the next generation. Aria Beth Sloss has written a lyrical and deeply moving love letter to the power of friendship.
People Magazine

Spanning three decades, this engaging novel explores the loves, losses and shifting friendship of two privileged Southern California girls.
Margot Livesey

In Autobiography of Us, Sloss captures not only the lives of two passionate and intelligent women but that very particular moment in American history when expectations about women and families were beginning to change--I felt Alex and Rebecca's pains and pleasures as my own. A beautifully written and utterly captivating novel.
Kirkus Reviews
What if the greatest love of your life were your best friend? Since childhood, Rebecca Madden's and Alexandra "Alex" Carrington's lives have twined and twisted around each other's, and the stories of their lives weave into a single autobiography. Told from Rebecca's perspective, the tale fairly seeps with desire for the missing half, just as Rebecca yearns for Alex whenever she leaves. And she does leave. Despite her patrician mother's reservations, Alex abandons Rebecca the summer before college to attend a theater arts camp. Letters come less and less often, leaving Rebecca to mourn until her suddenly very chic friend arrives to whisk both of them off to college. Alex promptly disappears again, keeping late hours and drifting into a glamorous world of drama, men, drinks and cigarettes. Although Rebecca tries to keep her moral compass as straight as her parents shaped it, she, too, has secrets. Dreaming of a career in medicine, Rebecca sneaks out of the dorm early and comes home late, hiding her studies from everyone who would point out the near impossibility of a woman becoming a doctor then. Yet again and again, Rebecca and Alex come together, drawn to each other like magnets. An early-summer wedding party brings catastrophe, however, when Rebecca finds Alex's date, the enigmatic, charismatic Bertrand Lowell, impossible to ignore. The evening sets in motion a betrayal deep enough to send Rebecca and Alex careening wildly off their courses. Sloss' debut novel sweeps across the tumultuous events of the late 1950s through the 1980s, navigating the characters through the fear of race riots, the loss of friends to the conflict in Vietnam and the battle for women's rights. Captivating, engrossing, surprising--the autobiography of Rebecca and Alex celebrates the terrible struggle to find one's identity as it elegiacally rues the necessary losses.

Engaging...Explores the loves, losses, and shifting friendship of two privileged Southern California girls.
author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy Margot Livesey

In Autobiography of Us, Sloss captures not only the lives of two passionate and intelligent women but that very particular moment in American history when expectations about women and families were beginning to change--I felt Alex and Rebecca's pains and pleasures as my own. A beautifully written and utterly captivating novel.
Marie Claire

An homage to friendship.
Library Journal
Introverted, bookish Rebecca and flamboyant, dynamic Alexandra meet at age 14 and instantly become best friends. We follow them from high school through college and into marriage and motherhood, with social change from the late 1950s through the early 1970s as backdrop. Told from Rebecca's point of view, their volatile friendship is the almost exclusive focus of the narrative, as the two young women find their career ambitions constricted by social norms and expectations and settle for unsatisfying or unhappy marriages. The narrative structure is at times frustrating, as Rebecca reveals information very selectively. In the end, however, one discovers that this is by design, and earlier puzzles (including the true meaning of the novel's title) are made clear by the revelations of the book's final pages. More troubling is the character of Alexandra, who is so insufferably self-centered and overbearing that it's difficult to buy into Rebecca's attachment to her. VERDICT If Rebecca's relationship with the difficult Alexandra can be accepted, book clubs may find much to discuss regarding women's friendships, social class, and changes in women's options as a result of the feminist movement. [See Prepub Alert, 8/9/12].—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

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Product Details

Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Chapter 1

She died before her time. Isn’t that what people say? Her name was Alex—Alexandra, though only our mothers and teachers ever called her that. Alexandra was the wrong name entirely for a girl like her, a name for the kind of girl who crossed her t’s and dotted her i’s, who said God bless when you sneezed. From the day she arrived at Windridge, we were the best of friends. You know how girls are at that age. We found each other like two animals recognizing a similar species: noses raised, sniffing, alert.

Funny, isn’t it? To think I was once young enough to have a friend like that. There were years she meant more to me than anyone, years our lives braided into each other’s so neatly I’m not sure, to be honest, they ever came undone. Though how does one even track such things? Like the movements of the moon across the sky, she exerted a strange and mysterious pull. Even now, I could no more chart her influence than I could the gravitational powers that rule the tides. I suppose that could be said of anyone we love, that their effects on our lives run so deeply, with such grave force, we hardly know what they mean until they are gone.


• *

I was fourteen the day she appeared in my homeroom. A transplant from Texas, our teacher announced, her hand on Alex’s shoulder as though she needed protecting, though it was clear from the start Alex didn’t need anything of the sort. She must have come straight to our classroom from home that day, because she wasn’t in uniform yet. Instead of the pleated navy skirts and regulation white blouses we had all worn since the third grade, she had on a red flowered dress with smocking across the front, ruffled at the neck in a way my mother never would have allowed. I remember being struck right away by how pretty she was—unfairly pretty, I thought. In those days I was a great believer in the injustice of beauty, and I saw immediately that Alex had been given everything I had not. She was thin through the arms and slender rather than skinny, with a pale, inquisitive face that might have seemed severe if it hadn’t been for the frank snubness of her nose and the freckles that stood out against her cheeks. Her dark hair she wore loose around her shoulders, her eyes startling even at a distance, the color a deep, sea-colored green, the right slightly larger than the left. Released to her desk, she chose the route that took her directly past mine—accident, I thought, until she turned her head a quarter inch and winked.

I was as blind as anyone as to why she picked me. I had by that age already established myself as a shy girl, bookish, and in the habit of taking everything too seriously. Of the fifteen girls in our homeroom that year, Ruthie Filbright was the prettiest, Betsy Bromwell the nicest, and Lindsey Patterson the biggest flirt. But it was me Alex winked at that September morning, me she approached at tennis that same afternoon. Me she rolled those eyes at when Lindsey flounced past, twirling her racket; me she flung herself down next to on the bench, kicking her legs out in front of her, her shins scabbed in a way I was aware I should have found ugly but did not. What I saw was that her shoes were covered with some sort of embroidered silk, that her fingernails were painted a shocking pink—the shade, I would later learn, Cyclamen. That she was, depressingly, even prettier than I had thought.

“Boo,” she said, frowning at a splotch of ink on her wrist. She rubbed it with her thumb, then brought her wrist to her mouth and licked it.

“Boo yourself.” I felt my cheeks heat right away.

But she was busy looking around, her expression caught somewhere between amusement and boredom. “Don’t tell me,” she said. It was a thrilling voice, surprisingly deep for a girl her size. “They’re every bit as bad as they look.”

“They’re nice enough.”

She crossed her arms over her thin chest. “And you? Are you nice?”

“That depends,” I said slowly. “There are different kinds of nice.”

She smiled. Her mouth was the one real oddity in her face: It was too large, too wide, the upper lip full in a way that erased the usual dip in the middle. Still, it was a surprisingly sweet smile. “So you are different.”

I didn’t need to look up to know everyone was watching—Ruthie and Lindsey and neat-faced Robin Pringle. I could feel their eyes, those girls standing clustered close to the fence, pretending to bounce tennis balls or check the strings on their rackets while they watched the new girl drag the toes of her ivory shoes carelessly back and forth in the dust. And they were watching me, Rebecca Madden, who until this very moment had been just another quiet girl in the corner, easily passed over and as easily forgotten. “I don’t know,” I said finally. “I guess I’m more or less like everyone else.”

She brought her head down close to mine then, so close I could smell the sharp floral scent of what she would later inform me was her mother’s perfume—filched, she would say, from her dressing table and applied liberally to her own wrists. “Now, if that were true,” she said softly, “what in the world would I be doing over here?”


• *

She lived, we discovered after school that day, just three blocks down on El Molino, in a beautiful old Tudor surrounded by bougainvillea and a high wall that ran around the perimeter of the property.

“Hideous, all of it,” she announced as we walked. “You’ll see. Eleanor’s had the place done Oriental—oh, I don’t care for honorifics. It’s Eleanor and Beau around here, and they’ll expect you to call them the same. Anyway, the whole thing’s silk and tasseled pillows and these awful little Chinaman figurines, which she insists positively ooze the West Coast esthétique. Meanwhile, I only know everything about California there is to know. It might have behooved her to ask my opinion.” She gave me a sidelong glance. “Aren’t you going to ask how I know everything about California?”

I straightened up. “How do you know—”

“I’m going to be an actress. Isn’t it obvious? I know what you’re thinking,” she added quickly. “But I’m not talking about the pictures. I mean the serious stuff, the Clytemnestras, the Heddas. Shaw, Brecht, et cetera. None of this fluff. It used to be about talent, you know. Look at Marlene Dietrich, for Christ’s sake. No—wait.” She shut her eyes. “Don’t tell me. You don’t have a clue.” She blinked at me. “Poor thing. Never mind—I’ll have you out of the Dark Ages in a jiffy. As for la Marlene,” she went on, “there’s no doing her justice with words. You’ve got to see her to understand. She came through Houston on a tour last fall—this awful cabaret thingy, really juvenile stuff, but, I swear, I would have sat in the audience and watched her slice bread. I mean, I could have sat there in my goddamn seat forever.” She put her hand on my arm. “Have you ever had one of those moments?”

“Which kind?”

She looked at me intently. “The kind where you feel like everyone could go to hell. Like you wouldn’t care if the whole world blew to pieces.”

I pretended to think. “I’m not sure.”

“Then you haven’t found it.”

“Found what?”

“Your something,” she said, impatient. “Your heart’s desire.”

“You’re saying yours is acting.”

“Listen, I’m not exactly thrilled about it either. I would have preferred something with a little more”—she clicked her tongue—“gravitas. That’s the thing about callings—they choose you.”

“But how do you know?”

“That’s like asking how anyone knows to breathe.” She’d stopped walking now, her hand still on my arm. We were standing under the shade of one of the big palm trees that lined that stretch of El Molino, and in the late-afternoon stillness I heard the drone of a honeybee circling overhead. “Look, I wasn’t given this voice for no reason. I’m not saying it to brag. I’d a thousand times rather have been given just about anything—a photographic memory or the ability to speak a dozen languages. Something useful. But I’m stuck with what I’ve got. Not to mention what I haven’t. Schoolwork, for starters,” she went on. “Oh, some of it I do alright with. Reading, for one. I happen to be a voracious reader. You?”

“I like to read,” I began. “I—”

“I’m perfectly tragic when it comes to arithmetic,” she went on. “And teachers are always telling me I’ve got to improve my penmanship. Frankly, I have neither the time nor the inclination.” She looked at me. “I bet you’re the type whose papers get held up in front of the class. I bet your goddamn penmanship gets top marks.”

I shrugged. “I do alright.”

“Because you’re a realist. Don’t look like that—it’s a compliment. Anybody with the slightest smidge of intelligence is a realist. The point is that you get the appalling fact of the matter—that we’re alone. Doomed to lives of quiet desperation or whatever. Thoreau.” She squinted at me. “You do know Thoreau.”

“Of course I do.” I pleated the material of my skirt between my thumb and index finger, feigning concentration to cover the flush I felt moving up my neck. I am, as you know, a terrible liar.

“Listen to me.” She gave me a dazzling smile. “If we’re going to be friends, you’ll have to learn to ignore me when I get like this. I go on tears, that’s all. There are things better kept to myself, Eleanor says. Problem is, I’m an only—child, I mean. Afraid I don’t always remember to think before I speak. Sometimes things come out without”—she chewed on her bottom lip—“arbitration.”

“I’m an only, too.”

“Were there others?”

“Other what?”

She gave me a penetrating look. “Eleanor had three before me. Or two before and one after, I can never keep it straight. You know—dead ones. Was it the same with yours?”

“I don’t think so.” I felt myself frowning and tried to relax my forehead—Mother telling me I looked pretty when I smiled, that frowning never did anyone’s face any good. “My mother traveled before she had me. Turning pages for a famous pianist.”

“You’re kidding.” She stared. “And now what?”

“And now what, what?”

We started walking again. “What happened to her and the pianist?”

“She got married, silly,” I said, laughing. I’d always found the story romantic, though I had a feeling if I admitted that, Alex would only shake her head or roll those startling eyes. “She and my father met in a restaurant. She was out with Henry Girard—the pianist—after a concert one night. Daddy had just come back from the war.” I tried to make it sound as though I could hardly remember, though of course I’d memorized every detail: my mother at a table with the famous pianist, her blonde head gleaming under the chandelier; my father in the corner with his wounded leg stretched out in front of him; across from him, his date, a woman whose face—no matter how many times I tried to picture it—remained blank. My mother young and beautiful in a green dress; Henry Girard aging, brilliant, bending his gray head over his soup. My father waiting until his date excused herself to the ladies’ room to stand and walk over to where my mother sat—a face like that, he said, impossible to ignore. “They got married not long after.”

“Sounds exciting.”

“It was,” I said, glancing at her, but she only looked thoughtful. “She always says he swept her off her feet. She says he—”

“I meant the working with the famous pianist bit.”

I shrugged. “She doesn’t talk about it much.”

“Like the dead babies.”

“Not exactly like that.”

“I think I would have liked one,” she went on, ignoring me. “A sister, anyway. I’m fine without the brother. I never would have known, obviously, except my parents get in these god-awful fights. Beau was saying something about family once, taking responsibility, and Eleanor just shrieked at him, If you blame the dead ones on me one more time, I swear—” She stopped. “The dead ones. Ghoulish, isn’t it?”

“Maybe a little.”

“I’m headed toward something sanguine, in case you were wondering.” She looked at me pointedly. “From the Latin sanguineus, meaning bloody. Hopeful. Optimistic. Point being, I believe we’re capable of righting certain wrongs. We might be all alone in the world, en effet, but that doesn’t mean we have to be lonely.” She stopped me again, and now we were at the edge of the small park across from her house, the canal that cut across the middle sluggish and choked with cattails, the far bank studded with juniper. “So? What do you say?”

“To what?”

She put out her hand, palm flat. “Blood sisters.” She wiggled her fingers. “I saw you fiddling with a pin in your hem earlier. Hand it over.”

“I don’t know,” I began, startled. It must be clear by now: I had never met anyone like her.

“Sure you do.” She gave me another one of her smiles. “Come on, Becky. In or out.”

I hated being called that, but I didn’t dare tell her. She was looking at me closely, her eyes darkened to something like charcoal; after a moment’s hesitation I reached down and undid the latch on the pin, dropping it in her hand.

“Good girl! Now.” She closed her eyes. “Do you solemnly swear?”

She pricked her own finger, then mine. At first I was too busy watching the drops of blood form on our fingertips and worrying about staining my blouse to hear much of what she said: I remember that she kept her eyes closed as we pressed our index fingers together, her voice solemn as she recited our vows. At a certain point I shut my eyes too, more to shut out the glare of the sun than anything. But as I stood there in the afternoon heat with the sharp scent of juniper filling my nose, I realized with a start that I was happy. That the world might fall to pieces and I wouldn’t care, not the littlest bit.

Copyright © 2013 by Aria Beth Sloss

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