Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There's no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty—or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born. But when a sudden discovery upends her fiercely ordered world, Tally sets out on an unexpected quest to seek out the reclusive musician who may hold the key to her past—and instead finds Maddy, an enigmatic and beautiful girl who will unlock the door to her future. The deeper she falls in love with Maddy, the more Tally begins to realize that the universe is bigger—and more complicated—than she ever imagined. Can Tally face the truth about her family—and find her way home in time to save herself from its consequences?
About a Girl is the powerful and entrancing conclusion to Sarah McCarry's Metamorphoses trilogy.
About the Author
Sarah McCarry was born in Seattle. She is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and has written for Glamour, The Stranger newspaper, the Huffington Post Books Blog, and Tor.com. She has published essays in Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation (Seal Press) and Voices of a New Generation: A Feminist Anthology (Prentice Hall). Since 1999, she’s written and produced the zine Glossolalia; it’s currently in the permanent collections of libraries across the country, including Columbia University, Barnard College, the Multnomah County Public Library, and the San Francisco Public Library. In August of 2009 she started the personal blog www.therejectionist.com. The blog currently has over a thousand followers and gets over 20,000 hits a month. She has bicycled alone across two continents and worked as a domestic violence advocate, a circus performer, a clearcut surveyor, an archivist, and a letterpress printer. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of All Our Pretty Songs, Dirty Wings, and About a Girl.
Read an Excerpt
About a Girl
By Sarah McCarry
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Sarah McCarry
All rights reserved.
They are sitting at the kitchen table in the apartment where she grew up. Morning light slanting in and patterning across the floorboards; smell of bread baking and coffee brewing in the stovetop percolator; patchwork curtains shifting in a wash of summer breeze. Mint blooms in the windowsill, leaves more than green. Outside, the whole world waiting — Let's go, she says, where have you been. Across the scarred old table (spilt candlewax, a smear of oil paint at one corner where she used to work before she was banished from painting in the kitchen, fraying runner dusted with bread crumbs), the girl takes out a cigarette. Silver click of her lighter, smoke curling from her mouth. So many years — she is dreaming, she must be — but here they are, and if her hands are older, marked with a network of fine lines, paint stained and smelling faintly, always, of turpentine — if her hands are older, the girl across from her is unchanged and luminous. Close-cropped dark hair and white sleeveless shirt, her collarbone sharp as the edge of a mirror. The cigarette burns, already forgotten, between the knuckles of her first and second fingers.
I can't stay, she says. Babycakes, you know that.
Come home. You can't be happy there. So much she wants to ask, so much to say; but there isn't enough time for any of it — clouds move across the sun outside; a shadow falls. The air gone dim and cool — blink and she is in the bone forest, bare white branches clacking in a fetid, noiseless wind — blink and they are in the park by the canal, soft guitar, sun on their shoulders — blink and the dog howls, once, twice, three times, the black river surging, thick and viscous as oil, past her bare, bloody feet.
No, the girl says, but I wasn't happy here, either. I brought you something.
What kind of something — don't go —
But it is too late: She is standing, stubbing out her cigarette on the table. A black mark spreads across the wood. You know how much I love you.
Not enough to stay.
The girl reaches forward and touches her mouth with two fingers, gentle as a kiss. It was never about that. You know that. It's good to see you; you look so happy. But I have to go. She turns, walks away, the way she did the first time. Not looking back. In her wake, the smell of burning: the scorch of her absence, searing itself into the world over and over again.
* * *
When she wakes it takes her a while to come back to herself. Where she is now: her room in her apartment in the city. Through the window she can see the trees, winter-stripped of their foliage, branches stark against a murky grey sky. The dream hums electric under her skin. She stumbles out of bed, pulls on a sweatshirt and wool socks to stave off the chill of the floor, wanders into the living room. Raoul is perched on the couch, a mug of coffee in his hand and one on the table waiting for her.
"I heard something," he says. "At the front door."
"No one rang the buzzer."
"No," he says.
"You didn't look?"
He shakes his head.
"I dreamed about her," she says.
"So did I."
She sighs, walks to the front door, opens it, looks around. Nothing. The hall is still and cool, their neighbors' doors shut tightly. No ghosts, no long-gone girls. And then she hears a rustle at her feet and looks down at the doorstep, and there it is, straight out of the Old Testament. A baby, its eyes closed tight, wrapped in a grey blanket, fast asleep on the Aliens-themed welcome mat Raoul had bought her when they moved in.
"Oh for fuck's sake," she says resignedly.
Raoul comes up behind her, puts his chin on her shoulder, starts to laugh. "Good thing we rented a three-bedroom," he says.
THE BLACK SEA
Tonight is my eighteenth birthday party and the beginning of the rest of my life, which I have already ruined; but before I describe how I arrived at calamity I will have to explain to you something of my personal history, which is, as you might expect, complicated —
If you will excuse me for a moment, someone has just come into the bookstore — No, we do not carry the latest craze in diet cookbooks — and thus she has departed again, leaving me in peace upon my stool at the cash register, where I shall detail the particulars that have led me to this moment of crisis.
In 1969, the Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann — theorist and christener of the quark, bird-watcher, and famed perfectionist — was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of particle physics. In his acceptance speech, he referenced the ostensibly more modest remark by Isaac Newton that if he had seen farther than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants, commenting that if he, Murray Gell-Mann, was better able to view the horizon, it was because he was surrounded by dwarfs. (Newton himself was referring rather unkindly to his detested rival Robert Hooke, who was a person of uncommonly small stature, so it's possible Gell-Mann was making an elaborate joke.) While I am more inclined to a certain degree of humility in public, I find myself not unsympathetic to his position. I am considered precocious, for good reason. Some people might say insufferable, but I do not truck with fools. ("What you're doing is good," Murray Gell-Mann told his colleague Sheldon Glashow, "but people will be very stupid about it." Glashow went on to win the Nobel Prize himself.)
— What? Well, of course we have Lolita, although I don't think that's the sort of book high-school teachers are equipped to teach — No, it's not that it's dirty exactly, it's just — Yes, I did see the movie — Sixteen-eleven, thanks — Cards, sure. Okay, goodbye, enjoy your summer; there is nothing that makes me so glad to have escaped high school as teenagers —
My name is Atalanta, and I am going to be an astronomer, if one's inclination is toward the romantic and nonspecific. My own inclination is neither, as I am a scientist. I am interested in dark energy, but less so in theoretical physics; it is time at the telescope that calls to me most strongly — we have telescopes, now, that can see all the way to the earliest hours of the universe, when the cloud of plasma after the Big Bang cooled enough to let light stream out, and it is difficult to imagine anything more thrilling than studying the birth of everything we know to be real. Assuming it is real, but that, of course, is an abstract question, and somewhat tangential to my main points at present. And though much of astronomy is, and has always been, the management of data — the recognition of patterns in vast tables of observations, the ability to pick the secrets of the universe out of spreadsheets thousands of pages long — there are also the lovely sleepless nights in the observatory, the kinship of people driven and obsessed enough to stay up fourteen hours at a stretch in the freezing dark tracking the slow dance of distant stars across the sky; those are the people whose number I should like one day to count myself among.
I am aware that I am only one day shy of eighteen and that I will have time to decide more carefully in what I will specialize as I obtain my doctorate and subsequent research fellowships, and I will be obliged as well to consider the highly competitive nature of the field — which is not, of course, to say that I am unequipped to address its rigors, only that I prefer to do work that has not been done already, the better to make my mark upon the cosmos. At any rate I like telescopes and I like beginnings and I like unanswered questions, and the universe has got plenty of those yet.
I live in an apartment in a neighborhood of Brooklyn that has only recently become relatively wealthy, with my Aunt Beast, who is not my aunt, but my biological mother's childhood best friend; my uncle Raoul, who is not my uncle, but my aunt's childhood best friend; Henri, who presumably was once someone's best friend, but is now more notably my uncle's husband; and Dorian Gray, who is technically Raoul's cat but I am privately certain likes me best. Atalanta is a ridiculous name, which is why most people call me Tally, including Aunt Beast, who picked it. My situation would be confusing to the average person, but this is New York, where unorthodox familial arrangements are par for the course. In my graduating class there was a girl who was the literal bastard child of a literal Luxembourgian duke; a boy whose father was a movie director so famous the entire family traveled with a bodyguard; a lesser Culkin; and a girl whose mother had made her fortune as a cocaine dealer before successfully transitioning to a career as a full-time socialite and home decorator, and I didn't even go to private school. My household of two gay not-dads and a sometimes-gay not-mom doesn't even rate a raised eyebrow.
My biological mother, Aurora, ran off right after I was born, which is unfortunate, but I've had seventeen years and three hundred and sixty-four days to accustom myself to her untimely departure. More accurately, she ran off before I was born, ran back briefly to deliver me to the household I now inhabit, and then ran off again, but as I was too small for these technicalities to have any effect on me at the time, for all intents and purposes it is easiest to say simply that she ran away. I have gathered she was something of a flibbertigibbet and a woman of ill repute, although Aunt Beast is not so unkind as to say so outright. I can only imagine she was dreadfully irresponsible on top of her flightiness, as I think it extremely poor form to cast off the fruit of one's womb as though it is little more than a bundle of dirty laundry. No doubt this abandonment has left me with lingering psychological issues, but I prefer to dwell in the realm of the empirical. Aurora left me on Raoul and Aunt Beast's doorstep, which is a good origin story, if not very original. (That was a pun, in case you were not clever enough to catch it.) Aunt Beast is not a beast at all, but she did read me A Wrinkle in Time at an impressionable age, and I have since refused to call her anything else, even though I am very nearly an adult and a fine scientist and high-school graduate who has secured a full scholarship to an excellent university you have certainly heard of in order to absorb the finer points of astrophysics before I go on to alter the course of history in whichever way I see fit.
Other pertinent points: Aunt Beast is a painter, Raoul is a poet, and Henri used to be a dancer but isn't any longer. Raoul teaches English to young hooligans, and Henri, who was once a principal in one of the best ballet companies in New York, retired over a decade ago, his body shot and his knees ground to dust, and became a massage therapist. As you know already, I work in a bookstore. I do not technically need my job; my grandfather, who died long before I was born, was both a tremendously famous musician and tremendously rich. (I am no particular aficionado of rock music, but Shane — oh, Shane, more about him in a moment — who is, has informed me that my grandfather's band was seminal, if derivative. I prefer Bach, personally.) Had I wanted to, I could have gotten into his considerable estate, which slumbers quietly in a trust, increasing itself exponentially every year. But Aunt Beast is adamant about not touching any of his money, and we live instead off the now-tidy sums she makes selling her paintings to museums and ancient, embittered Upper East Siders fossilized in their own wealth. New York does not teach one to think highly of the rich, a class of persons so inept they are incapable of even the most basic of tasks, including cleaning their own homes, laundering their own garments, cooking their own food, raising their own offspring, and riding the subway. Money cannot buy much of anything that interests me other than a fine education, which I have already managed to obtain for myself, and an orbiting telescope of my own; but even my grandfather's legacy is not quite enough to fund the construction of a personal satellite or particle accelerator, and so I see no use for it.
I am told Aurora was a great beauty. The only evidence I have of this fact is an old Polaroid of her and Aunt Beast when they were teenagers, taken in the garden of my grandmother's old house in the city where they grew up, which has hung over our couch in a battered wooden frame for as long as I can remember. It's summer; you can tell because of the backdrop of lapis sky and jumbled wildflowers. Aurora is laughing, her chin tilted up; her sharp cheekbones cut the light and send clear-edged panes of shadow across her face. Her skin is a few shades darker than mine and her hair, straight as my own, is bleached white where mine falls down my back in a waterfall of coal. She is indeed beautiful by any objective measure, not that it has done either of us any good. Aunt Beast is in her shadow, dressed in the same black clothes she still wears, her habitual sullenness battling a reluctant smile. You can't quite make out the color of Aurora's eyes but Aunt Beast says they were brown, in contrast to the blue of my own, which I have apparently inherited from my grandfather. My father is a mystery, not in the sense that he is mysterious, but in the sense that I have no idea who he is at all. From what I have heard of Aurora, it is not unlikely that she had no idea, either. Oh bother, excuse me —
Dear lord, you shouldn't get that; I think books about children with cancer are invariably maudlin and that one is a wholly abysmal example of the genre — Yes, I know it's popular, but why don't you get a book with actual literary value — Yes, certainly, I'd be happy to recommend something, you might try Titus Groan. No, it's not that long, and anyway it's good, so that doesn't matter — Oh, fine, as you like. Fifteen ninety-nine. It's your funeral, ha ha ha ha. Yes, thank you, goodbye —
At any rate, I myself am not a great beauty, so it is lucky I am preternaturally clever, else I would have no assets whatsoever to recommend me. My person is overly bony; I have the ungainly locomotion of a giraffe; and while my face is not unattractive, it is certainly not the sort of symmetrical countenance that causes strangers to remark upon its loveliness. My nose is somewhat beaklike. My skin, at least, is quite smooth and a pleasing shade of brown, but not even a white person ever got cast as the lead of a romantic comedy because they had nice skin. Additionally, white people are not subject to the regular and exhausting lines of enquiry my skin and vaguely ethnic features occasion ("What are you? No, I mean where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? No, I mean where are your parents from?"). These interviews have nothing to do, obviously, with my attractiveness, and everything to do with the troglodytic nature of my interrogators, but I find them inconvenient nonetheless. My eyes are striking, but they are not enough to distinguish me.
The apparatus of popular culture would have one believe that one's success with the opposite sex is irreparably hampered by a disinterest in, and lack of, conventional attractiveness, but I can attest from experiential evidence that this is not always the case. I have thrice engaged in penetrative intercourse. The first instance was at the age of fifteen, at science camp, with one of the graduate-student counselors. It was not a memorable experience. The second was after some dreadful dance my junior year, with a paramour Aunt Beast had dug up for me somewhere (double date with Shane; awkward, beery-breathed post-dance groping on the couch of Shane's date's absent parents; actual moment of entry so hasty and uninspired I was uncertain for several moments as to whether I was having sex at all; the next day, my temporary beau sent me flowers at school, which I threw away immediately), and whom I elected not to contact subsequent to the occasion. I had thought, in the spirit of scientific enquiry, that I would repeat the experiment, in order to ascertain whether my own results would more closely match the ecstatic testimony of romantic poets and cinematic heroines upon a second trial, but I am sorry to report they did not. But the third time — the third — oh, god.
Which leads me to Shane. I don't know if there is any point in telling you about him, since I don't know if I will ever — oh, I am being melodramatic, and also getting ahead of myself. I have known Shane for so long that his name is as much a part of me as my own. As a small child, I'd opened the door to our apartment, alarmed by the thumping and cursing of a small army of movers carting furniture and various boxes down the hall, and caught a brief, tantalizing glimpse of a pigtailed urchin of about my age being towed along behind a set of parents in the movers' wake.
Excerpted from About a Girl by Sarah McCarry. Copyright © 2015 Sarah McCarry. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
They are sitting at the kitchen table ...,
The Black Sea,
Love the Destroyer,
The Return Voyage,
About the Author,
Also by Sarah McCarry,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was so moving and beautiful. I read a few reviews that complained the protagonist and narrator, Tally, was too hard to empathize with because she's so analytical, but I never felt even a hint of that. I loved the whole story. (Also, the cover is gorgeous.) Even readers who don't know a thing about astronomy (like myself) or Greek myths (not like myself) will be able to follow the story. It'll be difficult to see where the plot is going, but seriously, just trust the author because she'll get you through it in one piece. Overall: this is an excellent read that hit all my happy buttons--friendship, growing up, stumbling around and trying to figure out Emotions while being utterly mortified by them, Greek myths, weird small towns where mystical things start to happen, and an utter lack of angst over the main character's bisexuality. I received my copy for free at Y'All West (May 2016), but having finished the book, I would say it is absolutely worth whatever you have to pay to get your hands on a copy.
Rounding out her Metamorphoses cycle, Sarah McCarry completes the trilogy with Aurora's teenage daughter Tally. On the verge of turning eighteen, Tally is finally starting to be comfortable with who she is and who she wants to be. Set on being a scientist, specifically studying dark energy, Tally's only other decision to make is will she take the next step with Shane and possibly jeopardize their friendship. After deciding to take the next step one night with Shane, Shane misses Tally's birthday for the first time in ten years. After she visits her mysterious neighbor Mr. M., she sees a photo of her mother (who left her as a newborn with her best friend) with a musician named Jack. Deciding to throw caution to the wind, Tally decides to go on her own quest in search of a mother and father she never knew. Let's start with the negatives, which are few and far between, so that I can move on to the wealth of positives. Teaching teenagers on a daily basis, I know that not many would be able to handle the three large chunks of separation. In fact, I prefer chapters as much as they do because it gives me short goals when life steps in the way. With the large middle section, I couldn't decide where to stop appropriately, and I would have to back and reread a few pages. The second negative is also a positive and really my own problem. Having not read the previous two books, I didn't know quite what to expect as far as the mythological elements, so I was quite surprised when the small town that Tally runs to is more mysterious and dark, even mythological. But! This was also the best part of the book. I was so enthralled by the myths and magic that followed Tally in her quest that I completely forgot I was reading a YA novel. Forgetting is a major plot point for the middle section as well. Once Tally starts up a relationship with Maddy, whom she meets in a bar, she begins to forget things: to talk to Jack, to call home, etc. Maddy literally makes Tally focus on other things. Forgetting about Shane on a daily basis, Tally's relationship with Maddy is the most interesting part of the book as Maddy definitely has some secrets. With Shakespearean quotes and nods to classical mythology, McCarry's seemingly stereotypical love story took a turn for the absolutely captivating with the sophisticated language and the intricacy of the plot. I fell in love with the small west coast town and desperately wanted to stay there for the rest of the book. Hauntingly beautiful, McCarry sets a high standard for YA.