Where in the World Is Susanna Kaysen: Cambridge

Susanna Kaysen, Cambridge (2014)

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18112117-cambridge?from_search=trueBased on the title and publicity, I was expecting Cambridge to be a portrait of Susanna Kaysen’s childhood (and current) home town, Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, while I found that it actually didn’t have much to offer about Cambridge, it did contain a stunning self-portrait of a girl who isn’t sure who she is or where she belongs.

“It was probably because I was so often taken away from Cambridge when I was young that I loved it as much as I did,” she begins. But can twice be considered often? (She spends one year in London and Florence at the age of seven, and one year in Athens at eleven, plus summer vacations on Cape Cod, which I don’t think really counts.) Granted, these are pretty dramatic removals at key points in her biography; the major toilet traumas that she suffers might alone cause her to cling to the safe American haven of her infancy. But as I read, I came to think that her displacement was more of an inner phenomenon than an outer one.

One indication of this is that oddly, in this childhood memoir there are no children. Susanna has one nerdy neighbor/friend, Roger, who functions as a sort of convenient prop rather than a personality in his own right. She also has a little sister whom she barely mentions after begging her parents to “send her back” proves unsuccessful. Of relationships to classmates or other children: zero, either positive or negative. Her world revolves around adults–adults who with few exceptions mock her, betray her, or abandon her.

When Susanna decides that she doesn’t like school and retreats into a corner with a book, her teacher simply ignores her. Her mother is a concert pianist manqué who torments Susanna by forcing her to take the dreaded solfege lessons. After a while a wonderful young aspiring conductor appears to tutor her, but after a short time he is taken away again by mysterious romantic complications. And so it goes…the geographical shifts seem to be just an outward sign of Susanna’s inability to find a stable source of affection. And even as she wonderfully describes some of the universal agonies of
growing up, her detachment and self-isolating behavior is disquieting. Something is
going to go wrong with this girl. (I haven’t read Susanna Kaysen’s earlier-published memoir about a later period in her life, Girl, Interrupted, but I can see the seeds for that account of a stay in a mental hospital in this book.)

Of course, “Cambridge” might be also taken as a name for a certain cultural phenomenon, the elite American academic social stratum that locates its mecca there. Born into this society, but failing to achieve the requisite accomplishments, Susanna perhaps loves Cambridge in the way one loves an abusive parent. She can’t live up to its ideals, but she can’t separate herself from them. Thus, while Cambridge is sharply observed and beautifully written, and sometimes very funny, it carries an undercurrent of sadness throughout. If you’re looking for a cozy travelogue of a university town, look elsewhere; this is a journey through the landscape of the human soul, and it’s not always pretty.


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