“On the day after my mother’s death, I returned to 83 Beals Street for the first time in fifteen years. I had stolen something from there when I was almost nine years old and kept it long after my reasons for holding on to it had lost their urgency. I suppose it was one of many talismans, real and imagined, I began collecting around that age to help me believe that what I told myself just might be true. Perhaps the strongest of these convictions, and the one it took the longest to let go of, was that believing that I needed to save those I loved from harm also meant that I could.”
From the first paragraph of this book (above) to the last, I felt it to be a most piercing novel. A novel which tells of Naomi’s education at Wellesley, but of the more valuable education that one gains without ever having to step foot into college. She battles her mother’s depression, her father’s heart attack, her best friend’s move, and her own isolation with admirable strength. She tells of it with heartbreaking honesty. It is a story of self-discovery and ambition, and I found myself marking the book with tabs every fifty pages or so. Here are a few of my favorite passages because they felt so applicable to my own life experiences:
“I had enrolled at Adams High School that fall. With nearly two thousand students in four grades, it was huge when compared with Beacon Junior High and Kennedy Elementary, both of which had been small neighborhood schools. Although its halls were narrow, the ceilings were so high that it seemed full of empty space even when crowded with students. Its demands were empty, too: the right clothes, a light attitude, a willingness to appear to be having fun. I was able to meet none of the qualifications.
“It became easier and easier to bury my misery under my drive. And along the way, it became logical to believe that the more I saw those around me fall, the more I needed to lift myself up as compensation. Maybe it was because of that day all those years ago when I witnessed my father’s heart attack and sidestepped the pain with a resolution. Maybe it was because my mother and Teddy persisted in slipping in and out of safety as I stood by. Or maybe it was just because I knew that I could never let any memory go and would have to learn to shut certain things out to keep my own balance in check. For all these reasons, and probably countless more I could not name, I nurtured the perfect juvenile solution to the pain of losing. I would win, all the time, at everything. It was that simple.”
“Once broken, the heart will always remain able to split along its fault lines.”
The lessons Naomi learns about her family, her friends, and most importantly herself, are the heart of this book. It reminded me a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and even the college life of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but Elizabeth Percer writes of growing up all in her own touching style. A style which made me feel the lessons learned from my youth, some still unlearned, become fresh again.