Sunday, September 1, 2013

Autobiography of Us by Aria Beth Sloss

This is supposed to be the story of two girls who meet in 1958 at the age of fourteen and become lifelong friends. Alex Carrington is a beautiful, mature and sophisticated brunette who dreams of becoming a serious actress and playing roles like Lady MacBeth, Hedda Gabler, and Desdemona, not a sexpot in meaningless Hollywood fluff, while shy bookworm Rebecca Madden harbors secret dreams of becoming a doctor; dreams so secret she never even shares them with her supposed best friend. They inhabit a world where little girls are expected to follow in their mothers’ footsteps and devote themselves to husbands and homes, not careers, to paraphrase Rose’s mother in “Titanic” in their parents’ eyes the sole purpose of going to college is to catch a husband.

Fast forward to 1965, a time of war, race riots, and hippies. Both girls are in college, Alex is pursuing her dream, appearing in plays and has even landed an agent, and Rebecca is secretly taking classes to prepare for medical school. They grow apart as each focuses on her own individual dream until one summer night, at a drunken celebration of a mutual friend’s wedding, Rebecca, under the influence of alcohol, loses her virginity to Alex’s boyfriend and becomes pregnant at a time when being an unwed mother was like standing up and announcing you have leprosy.

Rebecca becomes a social outcast, is sent to a home for unwed mothers run by nuns, though after getting off the bus she changes her mind and arranges to have an illegal abortion instead, and on top of it all loses her chance to go to medical school because her parents object to her “running her life” for “some ridiculous dream” and her professors, despite her good grades, agree.

Immediately after graduation, Rebecca moves to San Francisco, becomes a waitress, and meets a nice lawyer named Paul who she discovers, after having two children by him, turns out to be gay. Over the years she writes letters to Alex that she never bothers to send. When the two meet again, by chance, years later she discovers that Alex never fulfilled her dream either, though why is never revealed, married her college boyfriend, the one Rebecca slept with, and became the mother of twin girls. At this stage in their life, when both are wives and mothers, who, as far as appearances are concerned, dutifully followed in their mothers’ footsteps, and forsook careers and their own personal dreams for hearth and home, they have to stop and think, reevaluate their lives, and decide whether to continue the charade or make a change. And this is where I stop; I’m not going to go any further and spoil the ending for anyone.

I really wanted to like this book. It sounded so promising I made a point of moving it even higher in my Leaning Tower of Pisa “To Read” stack. So I’m sorry to say I had to force my way through to the bitter end. I just wanted it to be over.

First of all, there is the friendship between the two girls…most of the time I could not even understand why these two are even friends. Alex is a pretentious and narcissistic girl who alternately neglects and insults Rebecca. They are such “good” friends that Rebecca is even afraid to tell Alex when she falls under the spell of biology and chooses times when Alex is away to sneak off to the library to read science books, and when they are in college, she conceals what courses she is taking because she is afraid of being ridiculed or losing Alex’s “friendship.” As a person who has never had the good fortune to have a good, loyal, and lasting friendship with someone I could trust and depend on, I have a great respect for the ideal of friendship, and one of my pet peeves is the misuse of the word “friend,” like people who refer to what are really acquaintances as friends just for convenience’s sake, as well as the kind of people who pretend to be someone’s friend in order to use them. Yes, friends go through rough patches, have arguments, and sometimes fall or grow apart, no relationships is all smiles, sunshine, and lollipops, but if you are afraid to be yourself with your best friend, if you’re afraid to talk to that person, tell them how you feel or that they will mock or belittle or even dump you, then I don’t think that person really deserves to be called your friend, certainly not your best friend, even if they are your only so-called friend.

Then there’s the situation that led to the end of this “beautiful” friendship—Alex’s “boyfriend,” one of those rich boys who think the world is their oyster and supposedly attempted to rape Alex one night. She doesn’t seem to love him or to regard the two of them as a couple. She even boasts of having sex with other men to further her career. After Rebecca has been made fun of for being the only virgin left in their set, she gets tipsy at a wedding party and lets herself be seduced by this prize specimen of masculinity and pays a hefty price for it, losing just about everything that matters to her including Alex’s “friendship.” Maybe it’s just me, but if the friendship had been so good and true I would have valued that far more than the guy in this book who led to its end. Given the people involved and the circumstances, after the very natural feelings of betrayal and anger had passed, the friendship, if it were real, should have been the one thing that was saved. But that, and this review, I want to stress, is just my personal opinion. Everything fizzles from that point and goes steadily downhill. No one’s life turns out even remotely like they hoped it would. When Rebecca makes the decision to leave, to make a fresh start in San Francisco, I was on her side, I was hoping she would actually do something with her life, but she just becomes a waitress, let’s one college professor’s lack of encouragement destroy her dreams, just because he says she can’t be a doctor and should consider nursing instead, she gives up on it all and becomes a waitress then does what women of her time are expected to do, gets married and has kids, and then that falls apart too. Same story with Alex. It’s just a very disappointing and disillusioning book in my opinion. Maybe that was the whole point? Or maybe I was completely the wrong person to read it.

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