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…Released to her desk, she chose the route that took her directly passed mine – accident, I thought, until she turned her head a quarter inch and winked.
Alex and our narrator, Rebecca, become firm friends despite their differences in personality, looks and family background. Alex wants to be an actress:
“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.”
Rebecca finds her calling in an anatomy class and begins to sneak off to the library to study, telling no one about her heart’s desire.
But this is the 1960s and, being female, neither Alex nor Rebecca is free to choose how they live their lives. For Rebecca, this is compounded by her family’s expectations:
The life we led demanded certain expenses…And so our house was large if not overly so – more important, it was in the right sort of neighborhood; there was my schooling – private, Mother insisted; there were the cars, kept long after they had begun to rattle and hiss; a small garden at the back of the house, where she grew prize-winning roses; a yearly membership to the club we could easily have gone without, Mother declaring when my father suggested as much that we might as well go around barefoot and begging for alms. That without the club, we were, to put it plainly, sunk.
Alex and Rebecca are permitted to go to college – to experience some freedom before marriage – and take classes suitable for young women. But, towards the end of their first year, events happen that threaten not only their friendship but also the direction the rest of their lives will take.
Autobiography of Us is the story of a female friendship, the sort that you make in adolescence and return to again and again. It is the story of women coming of age in the 1960s, a time when society expected them to fulfill certain roles and left them exempt from others. It is the story of two women’s lives, lives that take in college, moving, sex, marriage, children and the sacrifices made for these things.
It was interesting to read this straight after Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl as essentially, they follow the same plot over the same time span. The main difference being that Bristol and Glasgow become California and New York. I wonder if this change in setting accounts for the change in the tones of the books; while Hadley’s prose is dense and often serious, Sloss’ has zip and verve – particularly in the scenes that contain Alex.
Autobiography of Us is a pacey story with some surprising twists and turns. It is a gem of a debut novel.
Thanks to Picador for the review copy.