Published by Henry Holt and Co.
Publication date: February 5th 2013
Genres: Debut, Fiction
For all my careful work I had never learned to mask the dread I felt at every turn…fear that any of one of my many failings would be discovered and I would be sent, like an orphan from one of my childhood novels, back to the dull world I’d inhabited before Alex came along.
Rebecca and Alexandra meet in high school when Alexandra is the new girl. Despite being husky-voiced and with a movie star’s leggy beauty and theatrical airs she chooses the unassuming Rebecca to be her best friend. It’s the familiar tale of two friends coming of age, when one is flamboyant and shining bright and the other, her quiet, plain counterpart. Having been told in so many stories it might seem that there is little chance of making it new, but by setting The Autobiography of Us in a time when the outdated expectations of one generation are crashing headlong against the hopes and dreams of the next, author Aria Beth Sloss adds a twist to the plot.
It’s the early 1960’s in Pasadena, California. Both Rebecca and Alexandra harbor dreams of successful careers in a time when securing a good husband was the only accepted goal for girls their age. Alexandra hopes to become a stage actress and spends much of her time rehearsing while Rebecca is fascinated by science and medicine. They later attend the same college with Alexandra’s mother grudgingly accepting her daughter’s theatrical ambitions. It is Rebecca who leads a double life, reading Gray’s Anatomy in secret, taking science classes and working in a lab. She tries to share this passion with Alexandra but her friend is less than interested in her desire to become a doctor.
“I think it’s interesting that’s all, I said, faltering. “It’s like Mr. Percy said, remember? The best parts are all around us. Everywhere you look. For instance, our hearts.” I held up my fists. “Did you know? They’re only that big.”
“Good for them,” she said, turning away again, bored.
Instead Alexandra is wholly immersed in her own goals, leaving Rebecca to find new friendships as she disappears into the world of theater. Their estrangement becomes complete right before their senior year when one of them makes a foolish mistake that can’t be undone.
It is only late in the novel when the women reconnect. Both are struggling with what they hoped to be and what, in fact, they have become, but it is Alexandra who seems completely lost. She reaches out to Rebecca once again, seeming to envy her ‘ideal’ life in New York City without ever acknowledging that it is far from what Rebecca hoped to do. Yes, she is married and has children but all her other aspirations are gone. When Alex comes to visit it becomes apparent that she is struggling mightily against her life. What is not clear is how she arrived at this point. There is the sense from early on in the book that Alex is deeply troubled and that even when it appears her situation has shaped her, she is the one shaping it. Rebecca tries to help but Alex’s presence in her home and life shines new light on her choices and the unhappiness spreads.
Autobiography of Us is an odd book in that it does not read as expected. For much of the book it is hard to believe Rebecca and Alexandra as best friends, despite Rebecca’s protestations. Rather it seems one-sided. In Rebecca, Alexandra has the counterpoint for her brilliance and a sounding board to whom she can emote endlessly about her life while Rebecca seems to gain little from Alex in the way of true friendship. She basks in the glow of Alex’s status but until the end of the book there is little sense that Alex understands and loves her as a true friend would. There are the seeds of something great in Autobiography of Us but in Rebecca and Alexandra it is never seems to take root, leaving the reader struggling for something to hold onto.