"Our life here is just like an old horror movie," muses the loquacious, inscrutable Raquel Motherwell near the end of Rebecca Wolff's debut novel, The Beginners. "It's like the skeleton of the horror novel hanging in the closet with all the suits and dresses that we never wear. Young couple moves to small New England town. House drafty, locals suspicious. Strange friends, omens of doom. Unreliable narrator. Cows lowing in the fields, arcane pagan religious festivals."
The Beginners does play tantalizingly on Raquel's friendly and familiar formula for a hair-raising tale, though the reader learns early on not to trust any story Raquel's telling. We also can't trust her husband, Theo. And to make matters worse, the unreliable narrator that Raquel so self-referentially mentions is actually neither Raquel nor Theo. That distinction belongs to Ginger Pritt, the precocious fifteen-year-old who guides us along her dreamy and sometimes sinister path of awakening in the tiny Massachusetts town of Wick.
Ginger meets Raquel and Theo Motherwell, a couple in their late twenties, when they appear one day in the cafe where she works. Raquel immediately invites Ginger to visit their house after school, and Ginger reflects that she has never before met another person whom she hasn't known her entire life. Her sense of the suffocatingly familiar suddenly mixing with the utterly unknown is what propels the story, as Ginger and Cherry, her best friend since birth, navigate their relationship with the strange new couple, with each other, and with their town.
Wick is too familiar to Ginger to even be referred to as familiar: "It would be like saying the womb is familiar to the fetus." But meanwhile, even before the Motherwells arrive, Ginger's perspective has begun to broaden. She thinks about what it would be like to live somewhere else. She shuts herself up in the back bathroom after the cafe is closed and pores over the owner's collection of porn. But unlike Cherry, Ginger is also still interested in the imaginative games of childhood. As she spends more and more time with the Motherwells, her imagination, combined her coming-of-age and Raquel and Theo's influence, move the story into discomfiting territory. The couple's motivation for spending time with Ginger is unclear, and their home, their presence, become like a vortex that Ginger seems to have no desire to escape.
Wolff toys with the recognizable adolescent tension between remaining dependent on one's family and childhood community and wanting to escape from that community. But for Ginger this tension is completely exaggerated: what is familiar is also the only thing she has ever experienced, and what is new is also unexplainable and perhaps supernatural. These uncomfortably high stakes and Wolff's hypnotizing language make The Beginners its own kind of vortex (meaning: I read it VERY quickly).
Have you ever woken from a bad dream, relieved that it was over, only to realize you're still dreaming? Have you ever napped for too long in the late afternoon and tried to force yourself awake, wanting to be up before it got dark out, knowing there were things to do, but found yourself stuck in an half-conscious state filled with anxious dreams? Have you ever had a dream that followed you during the day? These half-dreaming, half-lucid states are both familiar and disorienting, and Wolff utilizes them constantly throughout the novel so that the thing moves between a nearly-straightforward account of a bookish small-town girl moving toward an understanding of sexuality and possibility, and an anxious, restless daymare filled with ghosts and witches and eating your own extremities. This quality is what makes the book thrilling, and also why I shut the book feeling frustrated.
Ginger's life, on some pages at least, seems real (whatever we mean when we say that about a novel), thanks to Wolff's peculiar insights and Ginger's idiosyncratic voice. And during the times when the book's reality seemed palpable, I sometimes found myself baffled: Why won't Ginger just leave the Motherwells' creepy house and go home for dinner? What is she supposed to decipher from this cast of authority figures, some concerned, some predatory, and some somewhere in between? Are there ghosts and telepathy at work, or aren't there? And the most disturbing of these questions, especially in a story about sexual awakening: Does sex make Ginger powerful, as she wants to believe it does, or is it something that happens to her? But then, infuriatingly, the narrative would turn a corner and I'd be reminded that this story exists partly in an old horror movie and partly in a spooky fairy tale and partly in a partial dream, and that instead of concrete answers, I was going to get a dream that followed me around like a ghost even after I'd read the last page and closed the cover.
Thanks to the friendly Powell's Books employee who alerted me to the fact that Rebecca Wolff (also a poet) is the founding editor of supercool magazine Fence . Go see!