Autobiography of Us

autobiography of usPublished: 2013
Author: Aria Beth Sloss

Beautifully written, but the lack of likeable characters lets it down


This year seems to be a time for me to read lots of Americana. Earlier in the year it was Revolutionary Road, a classic look at suburban disillusionment, then it was bang up to date with Megan Abbott’s Dare Me – a scorching look at burgeoning sexuality and secrets in American High Schools today. My latest dip into American society is Aria Beth Sloss’s debut novel Autobiography of Us, the story of two friends growing up in late 1950s California and how their lives intertwine over the next 30 years.

Bookish, serious Rebecca and free-spirited would be actress Alexandra have nothing in common yet Alexandra’s arrival as a new girl at Rebecca’s school sees the two girls instantly forge a connection which lasts for decades. The friendship goes through a number of peaks and troughs as both young women attempt to find their own place in a society which is going through rapid social and political changes at a dizzying rate. Both girls dream of becoming more than anyone, including their own parents, thought possible and both find their own lives bitterly disappointing.

I struggled a little with Autobiography of Us. It was beautifully written and the book evoked a time in American history where people, women especially, could see that there was a different future possible. The tragedy of this book is that the characters can’t quite take advantage of the changing times. One female character is accepted into medical school but inexplicably doesn’t use her place. The women’s movement may have been in the ascendency but it hadn’t penetrated the middle class enclave of Pasadena. My problem wasn’t with the story or the strong sense of time and place, it was with the main characters. I just didn’t like either of them very much and certainly not enough to care about what happened to them over 30 years.

While it was hard enough to see why Rebecca and Alexandra became friends at school it became impossible to believe in them as friends at university. Much was made of the times that the friendship became strained but it didn’t have much impact on me as I had never been convinced of the friendship in the first place. There seemed to be no development of their relationship – Alexandra shows up at the school, they quickly bond and next thing we know they are off to university and there are schisms in the friendship.

How both women treat others, and each other, is fairly obnoxious and the men in their lives are no better. I think Rebecca’s father is the only truly sympathetic character in the entire book and there’s not enough of him in the narrative for him to save the story.

There are some highlights to the book. A drunken, tense dinner party scene crackles along nicely and I did enjoy the ambiguity of the title. Who is the “us” referred to? Rebecca is the narrator but is it herself and Alexandra, herself and the daughter she is narrating the story to, her whole family? It’s a nice touch from Sloss to allow the reader the freedom to answer that question on their own.

I see a great future for Sloss, her writing is beautiful and her ability to create a sense of time and place is fabulous. If she remembers to develop characters that readers actually like and care about then her next book could be stunning.

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