The Beginners

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Theo and Raquel Motherwell are the only newcomers to the sleepy town of Wick in fifteen-year-old Ginger Pritt’s memory. Hampered by a lingering innocence while her best friend, Cherry, grows more and more embroiled with boys, Ginger is instantly attracted to the worldliness of this dashing couple. But as Ginger’s keen imagination takes up the seductive mystery of their past, she is only left with more questions. Who—or what—exactly, are the Motherwells? And what is it they want with her? Both a lyrical ...

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Overview

Theo and Raquel Motherwell are the only newcomers to the sleepy town of Wick in fifteen-year-old Ginger Pritt’s memory. Hampered by a lingering innocence while her best friend, Cherry, grows more and more embroiled with boys, Ginger is instantly attracted to the worldliness of this dashing couple. But as Ginger’s keen imagination takes up the seductive mystery of their past, she is only left with more questions. Who—or what—exactly, are the Motherwells? And what is it they want with her? Both a lyrical coming-of-age story and a spine-tingling tale of ghostly menace, The Beginners introduces Rebecca Wolff as an exciting new talent in fiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Jonathan Lethem interviews Rebecca Wolff about The Beginners

Lethem: What does a poet already know about the stuff of narrative fiction going in—about character, scene, "story"? What does she have to learn on the fly? How did that feel?

Wolff: I'm not sure I can speak for all poets (in fact, I'm sure I can't). Some are quite dedicated to narrative as a basic logical structure for their poems—think of the sort of poem that can be paraphrased: "I was mowing the lawn and then I saw this bird and it made me think of my lost freedoms; and then I saw this leaf fallen on the ground and it made me recall my imminent mortality in such a way that I no longer felt a pang at my lost freedoms." That poem provides an arc not at all unlike the arc of story, with scene, with character. I have never been exactly that kind of poet—I tend to think of my poetic impulse as being more ambient, more akin to a soundscape or dreamscape than a story line—but on the other hand I have always been a hungry consumer of narratives in the forms of novels and film. When I began The Beginners I instantly realized that the most significant tutelage I had absorbed from my reading of narratives was at the level of the sentence: How to begin and end a sentence, and what might go in the middle. So I still did have a seriously steep learning curve, and the first drafts of this novel were so haphazard as to be unredeemable. I had to actually learn that it was in my power to move characters and their story along by forcing them to do things, to say things, to pick up and put down things. When writing poems I prefer to rely on what feels like divine communion with language itself; and when writing a novel one must subscribe to, even love, the banal in a way that can make the complex weave of a story hang together.

Lethem: New England already seems dotted with ominous, dreamlike, unreal literary places—the Lovecraft towns, the Shirley Jackson towns. Where's the town of Wick situated on the map of the real and the unreal?

Wolff: Wick is exactly that town that you drive through and can't believe you're driving through, and that was exactly what made me want to write about it. It is directly based on an amalgamation of a very strange set of towns in central Massachusetts—I hope I'm not preemptively destroying the mystery of the fiction by disclosing this, but I just visited the area again last week so I'm full of the sense of it. One town is called Hardwick, and it is quite near a larger town called, I kid you not, Ware. The two are joined by a hamlet called Gilbertville. I drove through these towns quite often when I used to have to go from somewhere to somewhere else in Massachusetts and they were on the way, sort of—although part of the magic of them is that they are not really on the way anywhere at all, they are set off from anywhere, almost cut off, by the circumstances of their history as described in the novel. So I would be by myself, in the car, full of wonder and a sense of possibility at the question of what could bring anyone there, and who they would find if they arrived there—and that was the seed of the novel.

Lethem: You're a descendent, and share part of your name, with one of the Salem "witches" featured in The Crucible. Is this a family matter?

Wolff: It is, and this biographical fact is inherently related to questions the novel attempts to raise. Originally, I visited the three towns that became in my imagination Wick, because I was on the trail of my ancestors. My mother had told me that the remaining family of Rebecca Nurse, my ancestor, had moved to Hardwick after the witch trials had claimed the lives of their matriarch. So I went poking around looking for family names in the graveyards there, and what I found made me ask myself: What does it mean to be connected to a beautiful, lonely place by a tragic error? How real are connections that we feel to places, or to people? Is there a kind of magic in our often ephemeral sense of relationship, of connectedness, of history? (One of the main characters, Raquel, is a woman for whom there is no continuity.) Histories are, of course, stories, and so this story attempts to ask what it means to find meaning in stories, in "facts," in their infinite interpretation. Not to be too circular about it. The witch trials are a fascinating study in multiple subjectivities, and in the shifting nature of rationality, as the conviction of the people of Salem that certain behaviors could most reasonably be caused by consort with the Devil would be definitively contradicted soon after. Just as the conviction that the "afflicted girls," the teenagers who were given the power of accusation and upon whom the burden of proof also lay, were under the spell of Tituba, a slave, later shifted to a belief that they had eaten moldy grain and were hallucinating, and later again to a more sociologically determined reading of group hysteria. Semiotic, social, psychiatric, and religious historical treatments all smooth the path toward a reasoned understanding. But as a child growing up with the nominal connection to Rebecca, I was not so interested in these kinds of explanations, and instead immersed myself in the part of the story in which accusations were made, and lingered in that space before the accusations were denied. Though the texts I studied reported that, for example, one of Rebecca's accusers had been seen to prick her own self with a pin just prior to crying out that Rebecca's spirit had punctured her flesh, I was loath to dwell on these more prosaic passages. I wanted to be the descendent of a witch, not a victim.

Lethem: Henry James. Shirley Jackson. Paula Fox. S. E. Hinton. I'm guessing wildly, but I have to ask you about influence. Pick two and discuss.

Wolff: I like to describe The Beginners as a cross between Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and The Turn of the Screw. But seriously, I'd like to order a large James/Jackson combo. My sentences can be Jamesian, though I attempt to unwind them as much as I am able; my conviction that fiction is a perfect place for exploring what is otherworldly, in the midst of or just adjacent to this fabric of "reality," comes out of Jackson.

Lethem: I had the feeling you were inspired to try to create real fear in your reader -- or perhaps you scared yourself while writing it. Do you identify with "horror"?

Wolff: I think being truly frightened is a formative experience for children, and is a foundational experience for the adults they become. Horror, the kind that we create most vividly in our imaginations, gives us yet another opportunity for the experience of finding relief—we run to our parents, we bury our faces in their laps. We find comfort in turning on the light, in being shown that there is nothing under the bed. Ginger, the fifteen-year-old narrator of The Beginners, is just coming out of that period of childish consciousness in which one is quite open to the possibilities of one's own fancy, and to granting them credence. And just as she begins to feel the pressure of crossing over, she finds herself consorting with adults who occupy a dangerously liminal state and who produce or call out in her an absorption, a giving over to that childish consciousness, even as they call upon her to enter a realm of sexuality that is quite at odds with childhood.

I was very concerned that the book actually be scary. It was my worst fear that the book would simply gesture at fear, without truly evoking it in the reader. The act of writing, just like the act of reading, can be frightening—one necessarily leaves the realm of rationality, or anyway I do—and I was frightened at times writing this book (when I was not engaged with the more banal tasks of making characters pick up and put down their teacups). And I knew that that was exactly the sensation I wanted to create for the reader—as an opportunity for him or her to return or arrive at that kind of open consciousness, the capacity for belief. The book is in part an homage to fear.

Publishers Weekly
Dread and desire hang deliciously over every page of Wolff's gothic tale of an adolescent New England girl's unlikely education. Ginger is imaginative, her nose always in a book, and not as advanced, sexually or socially, as her best friend, Cherry, who wants to talk to boys rather than play castle at the abandoned mill. Ginger's family, meanwhile, has lived in a state of near suspended animation since the death of her older brother. But when an odd young couple walk into the cafe where Ginger works, she has her own entrée into a sophisticated world of frank sex talk and philosophical musings. The Motherwells, Raquel and Theo, say they are in town to research the town's past—witch trials, the legend of a town sunk beneath the reservoir—and they allow Ginger and Cherry, but mostly Ginger, into their strange cohort and a party to their sometimes alarming schemes. As Ginger starts avoiding most contact that does not involve the Motherwells, her shrinking world grows more sinister and seductive. Wolff conjures the state of smothering awe and fixation Ginger has for the Motherwells, and her twin needs to be wanted by them sexually and as a stand-in daughter lends a throbbing urgency to a novel as creepy as it is marvelous. (June)
Elle
"…Wolff conjures a live-wire modern-day drama ripe with invention about adolescence, family secrets, seduction, the lure of a mysterious, worldly couple, and the ghostly pull of a violent past."
Marie Claire
"…chilling, exquisitely wrought debut…"
W Magazine
"…the book maintains this amazing tension of innocence verses experience, luminosity verses dread, sexiness verses creepiness, on almost every page. Leave the light on."
Oprah.com
"…exquisitely written … Wolff captures the awakening of this dreamy, shy girl so perfectly and acutely, you might just shiver—not only from fear but recognition."
Huffington Post
"…this poet turned novelist is being praised as the next great literary talent."
Bookforum
"[Wolff's] scrupulous honesty in exploring the supernatural—what sustains it, and what it can do for us—is frightening in itself; it's the product of a marvelous imagination, and it's what keeps us reading." –
Library Journal
Best known for her poetry (e.g., Manderley) and as the founder of both Fence Magazine and Fence Books, Wolff applies her lyrical dexterity with precision in her debut novel. Set in Wick, MA, the story unfolds around young Ginger Pritt's relationship with her family; her best friend, Cherry; the town's newest residents, flashy Theo and Raquel Motherwell; and the town's historical role in witch trials in the late 1600s. Wolff weaves the historical narrative of the town into Ginger's understanding of the modern forms of power she must overcome in her maturation into womanhood. As a corollary, the supernatural elements in the story are used as a form of empowerment for the female protagonist—her life might be a little more magical than her mundane surroundings would suggest. This is a quick read, but the simple prose and linear plot conceal a more complex subject. VERDICT Wolff's debut novel is an entertaining coming-of-age story, illuminating heroic femininity experienced in everyday life. This novel will appeal to readers who enjoyed Donna Tartt's The Little Friend or Goldberry Long's Juniper Tree Burning.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH
The Barnes & Noble Review

The flinty, shattered townscape of central Massachusetts is the setting for The Beginners, the debut novel of poet and Fence magazine founding editor Rebecca Wolff. Lost amid the indistinct byways that run between Boston's tangled traffic and the glossy, tree-furred Berkshires, once a diaspora of discontent for New Englanders unsettled by the Puritans? roundheaded pieties, the district glimmers with a kind of broken magic, ... Full review: The flinty, shattered townscape of central Massachusetts is the setting for The Beginners, the debut novel of poet and Fence magazine founding editor Rebecca Wolff. Lost amid the indistinct byways that run between Boston's tangled traffic and the glossy, tree-furred Berkshires, once a diaspora of discontent for New Englanders unsettled by the Puritans? roundheaded pieties, the district glimmers with a kind of broken magic, where abandoned mills glower from the river bluffs and reservoirs are reputed to hide the rooftops and steeples of lost towns. It's a faded enchantment to which Ginger, Wolff's smart and suggestible adolescent protagonist, is particularly alive–—which is why she's singled out by an enigmatic couple who move to town at the beginning of the summer of her fifteenth year. Walleyed and wan, sallow and lean, Raquel and Theo carry the burden of a fey glamour all their own; to the bookish Ginger, their tales of graduate school and the promise of volumes to be written prove impossibly seductive, driving a wedge between her and her pretty-but-dull best friend, Cherry.

But some nimbus of disease hangs about Theo and Raquel, who laugh through gnashing teeth as they spin erudite anecdotes about hanged witches and drowned towns. A threat lurks, languorous and stealthy, in these tales and the obsessions they seem to punctuate—and of course this doubtful cloud casts its spell on the receptive Ginger.

Wolff limns her story of misbegotten love and duplicitous desire with an ear for the plaint of the reverie-stricken teen, a mind tuned to the haunted territories of adolescence, and an eye for how incipient horror manifests itself in small-town spaces—the way the "bright grass of the green is made denser, more dimensional through the tiny cross-hatching" of the screen doors, for instance. And yet despite Ginger's vivid eye, there is a kind of stock, Mayberry-meets-Amityville character to her town. With such sturdy names as Shift and Wick, the geography of The Beginners lacks the evocative prosody of place, the meeting of the treacly Sturbridges and Wollastons of England's Midlands with tangled Algonquin vocables, the Quabogs and Tantasquas; a collision that lends New England's thinly settled places their squalid and unsettling music (the original Podunk was a village named for a vanished Massachusetts tribe). Supporting characters, too, seem a rattle-bag of types gathered from the pre-social media Pleistocene, greasers and girls in poodle skirts sharing the focus with leering shopkeepers and pathetic dads from 80s sitcoms. Some mention laptops and digital files, while others even say "ma" and "pa, " a usage that has dwindled steadily since the Waltons said goodnight.

Up to a point, the asynchrony and alienated sense of place serve Wolff's uncanny ends. As the novel winds to a hectic and uncertain conclusion and the main characters' wonted sorceries dissolve into musky and quotidian vapors, however, this indistinctiveness provides scant support. At the beginning of the novel, Ginger wonders whether evil is a personal choice or whether it is "a floating contingency of being, like a hat that lands on one's head"; later, she concludes that "there could be no other possible explanation but witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment" for her inexplicable longings. Ultimately, however, not even magic furnishes her ready answers. As she ponders her willful shadow near the novel's close, we can't be sure whether evil is the work of its own restless minions, or merely a cap one doffs with changes in season. &mdashMatthew Battles

Matthew Battles is the author of Library: An Unquiet History. He has written about language, technology, and history for such publications as The American Scholar, The Boston Sunday Globe, and Harper's.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487996
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 6/30/2011
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 8.10 (w) x 5.38 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Wolff is an award-winning poet and the founding editor of Fence and Fence Books. She received an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and is the author of three books of poems. She has published in The Nation, The Paris Review, and A Public Space. Wolff lives in Athens, New York.

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Interviews & Essays

Jonathan Lethem interviews Rebecca Wolff about The Beginners

Lethem: What does a poet already know about the stuff of narrative fiction going in—about character, scene, "story"? What does she have to learn on the fly? How did that feel?

Wolff: I'm not sure I can speak for all poets (in fact, I'm sure I can't). Some are quite dedicated to narrative as a basic logical structure for their poems—think of the sort of poem that can be paraphrased: "I was mowing the lawn and then I saw this bird and it made me think of my lost freedoms; and then I saw this leaf fallen on the ground and it made me recall my imminent mortality in such a way that I no longer felt a pang at my lost freedoms." That poem provides an arc not at all unlike the arc of story, with scene, with character. I have never been exactly that kind of poet—I tend to think of my poetic impulse as being more ambient, more akin to a soundscape or dreamscape than a story line—but on the other hand I have always been a hungry consumer of narratives in the forms of novels and film. When I began The Beginners I instantly realized that the most significant tutelage I had absorbed from my reading of narratives was at the level of the sentence: How to begin and end a sentence, and what might go in the middle. So I still did have a seriously steep learning curve, and the first drafts of this novel were so haphazard as to be unredeemable. I had to actually learn that it was in my power to move characters and their story along by forcing them to do things, to say things, to pick up and put down things. When writing poems I prefer to rely on what feels like divine communion with language itself; and when writing a novel one must subscribe to, even love, the banal in a way that can make the complex weave of a story hang together.

Lethem: New England already seems dotted with ominous, dreamlike, unreal literary places—the Lovecraft towns, the Shirley Jackson towns. Where's the town of Wick situated on the map of the real and the unreal?

Wolff: Wick is exactly that town that you drive through and can't believe you're driving through, and that was exactly what made me want to write about it. It is directly based on an amalgamation of a very strange set of towns in central Massachusetts—I hope I'm not preemptively destroying the mystery of the fiction by disclosing this, but I just visited the area again last week so I'm full of the sense of it. One town is called Hardwick, and it is quite near a larger town called, I kid you not, Ware. The two are joined by a hamlet called Gilbertville. I drove through these towns quite often when I used to have to go from somewhere to somewhere else in Massachusetts and they were on the way, sort of—although part of the magic of them is that they are not really on the way anywhere at all, they are set off from anywhere, almost cut off, by the circumstances of their history as described in the novel. So I would be by myself, in the car, full of wonder and a sense of possibility at the question of what could bring anyone there, and who they would find if they arrived there—and that was the seed of the novel.

Lethem: You're a descendent, and share part of your name, with one of the Salem "witches" featured in The Crucible. Is this a family matter?

Wolff: It is, and this biographical fact is inherently related to questions the novel attempts to raise. Originally, I visited the three towns that became in my imagination Wick, because I was on the trail of my ancestors. My mother had told me that the remaining family of Rebecca Nurse, my ancestor, had moved to Hardwick after the witch trials had claimed the lives of their matriarch. So I went poking around looking for family names in the graveyards there, and what I found made me ask myself: What does it mean to be connected to a beautiful, lonely place by a tragic error? How real are connections that we feel to places, or to people? Is there a kind of magic in our often ephemeral sense of relationship, of connectedness, of history? (One of the main characters, Raquel, is a woman for whom there is no continuity.) Histories are, of course, stories, and so this story attempts to ask what it means to find meaning in stories, in "facts," in their infinite interpretation. Not to be too circular about it. The witch trials are a fascinating study in multiple subjectivities, and in the shifting nature of rationality, as the conviction of the people of Salem that certain behaviors could most reasonably be caused by consort with the Devil would be definitively contradicted soon after. Just as the conviction that the "afflicted girls," the teenagers who were given the power of accusation and upon whom the burden of proof also lay, were under the spell of Tituba, a slave, later shifted to a belief that they had eaten moldy grain and were hallucinating, and later again to a more sociologically determined reading of group hysteria. Semiotic, social, psychiatric, and religious historical treatments all smooth the path toward a reasoned understanding. But as a child growing up with the nominal connection to Rebecca, I was not so interested in these kinds of explanations, and instead immersed myself in the part of the story in which accusations were made, and lingered in that space before the accusations were denied. Though the texts I studied reported that, for example, one of Rebecca's accusers had been seen to prick her own self with a pin just prior to crying out that Rebecca's spirit had punctured her flesh, I was loath to dwell on these more prosaic passages. I wanted to be the descendent of a witch, not a victim.

Lethem: Henry James. Shirley Jackson. Paula Fox. S. E. Hinton. I'm guessing wildly, but I have to ask you about influence. Pick two and discuss.

Wolff: I like to describe The Beginners as a cross between Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret and The Turn of the Screw. But seriously, I'd like to order a large James/Jackson combo. My sentences can be Jamesian, though I attempt to unwind them as much as I am able; my conviction that fiction is a perfect place for exploring what is otherworldly, in the midst of or just adjacent to this fabric of "reality," comes out of Jackson.

Lethem: I had the feeling you were inspired to try to create real fear in your reader -- or perhaps you scared yourself while writing it. Do you identify with "horror"?

Wolff: I think being truly frightened is a formative experience for children, and is a foundational experience for the adults they become. Horror, the kind that we create most vividly in our imaginations, gives us yet another opportunity for the experience of finding relief—we run to our parents, we bury our faces in their laps. We find comfort in turning on the light, in being shown that there is nothing under the bed. Ginger, the fifteen-year-old narrator of The Beginners, is just coming out of that period of childish consciousness in which one is quite open to the possibilities of one's own fancy, and to granting them credence. And just as she begins to feel the pressure of crossing over, she finds herself consorting with adults who occupy a dangerously liminal state and who produce or call out in her an absorption, a giving over to that childish consciousness, even as they call upon her to enter a realm of sexuality that is quite at odds with childhood.

I was very concerned that the book actually be scary. It was my worst fear that the book would simply gesture at fear, without truly evoking it in the reader. The act of writing, just like the act of reading, can be frightening—one necessarily leaves the realm of rationality, or anyway I do—and I was frightened at times writing this book (when I was not engaged with the more banal tasks of making characters pick up and put down their teacups). And I knew that that was exactly the sensation I wanted to create for the reader—as an opportunity for him or her to return or arrive at that kind of open consciousness, the capacity for belief. The book is in part an homage to fear.

Read More Show Less

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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not Recommended

    (This review is of an advanced copy received from the publisher.)

    Fifteen year-old Ginger, who sounds nothing like a fifteen year-old in her narration, becomes instantly infatuated with the new couple that moves to her small hometown in Massachusetts, and the ensuing story is supposed to be one of coming of age. However, at times I began to wonder exactly what I was reading. Ginger's complete acceptance of the Motherwells, no matter how bizarre their behavior seems to carry her 'innocence' a step or two beyond believable, and the overly flower writing makes the rest of the story difficult to muddle through. The idea itself is intriguing, especially the line involving the town's history, but in the end I walked away with no sense of closure, as the execution of the story was poorly done.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 17, 2011

    Do Not Recommend

    What a confusing book that never built any story. It was a terrible read, and I struggled to finish it. Be aware there is content some people might be offended by. Waste of time....

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 12, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews

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