The coming-of-age story is a fundamental one in literature for many reasons, not in the least because each experience of adolescence, transition and emerging sexuality is at once highly personal and universal. From frank realism to sublime fantasy, the coming-of-age tale can be shaped into a variety of forms depending on the author. In Rebecca Wolff's hands, it's atmospheric, dark, thrilling and strange. THE BEGINNERS, her debut novel, follows 15-year-old Ginger Pritt as she's seduced by a young and eccentric couple who move to her small New England town.
While the characters are interesting and the story challenging, it's the way it all comes together in Wolff's writing --- intense, frightening and radiant --- that makes it so good.
Ginger seems like a young girl compared to her best friend, Cherry. Cherry is not only older but is more physically developed and already has had boyfriends. And though Ginger is interested in boys and sex, too, she has to be content with her examinations of the pornography her boss keeps stashed in the bathroom. The arrival of Theo and Raquel Motherwell both coincides with Ginger's sexual awakening and forces it. In either case, Ginger is drawn to them intellectually as well as physically, but their interest in her becomes a menacing power that is repulsive and yet compelling. Ginger is an imaginative girl, always with her nose in a book, and increasingly adrift in her world as her brother's death several years ago and Cherry's social maturity have left her isolated in her family and in school. Longing for physical and philosophical release, the attention of the Motherwells is something she revels in.
Even though Ginger cannot or will not see the Motherwells for who they are, readers begin to sense the impending destruction as she grows closer and closer to them and as Cherry is frightened away. And just who the Motherwells are THE BEGINNERS never really tells: perhaps graduate school dropouts living on stolen fellowship money, or lovers who met in court-mandated therapy. Theo may or may not be an attempted murderer, and Raquel may or may not be a descendant of women burned at the stake as witches. They may have been drawn to the town of Wick, with its own legend of lost sibling towns, accidentally, or they may have come to stake some under-articulated claim. In any case, it soon becomes clear that Theo is predatory and Raquel damaged, and that harm will come to Ginger. The only question is in what form and to what extent.
Sex, family, death, friendship and collective history are all explored against the backdrop of a gothic New England town. Ghosts of the dead, of ideas and possibilities float across the page as Ginger confronts the mysteries of her mind, of her town and of her body with the dangerous Motherwells as catalyst.
THE BEGINNERS is creepy and powerful. Full of unanswered questions and told from Ginger's unflinching but limited first person point of view, the novel is often harsh and sad. But it's also beautifully written, composed really, by Wolff, whose poetic background is obvious. While the characters are interesting and the story challenging, it's the way it all comes together in Wolff's writing --- intense, frightening and radiant --- that makes it so good. At times it feels like an epic poem using metaphor and symbolism to understand truth and reality. It's not always easy to rely on Ginger as a narrator, and things are further complicated by the unreliability of the Motherwells. So readers looking for a straightforward story will be disappointed. Surreal and scary, the novel is dealing with the realm of emotion and sensation, not facts and outcome.
There are no easy answers here, and so much is left unexplained. But THE BEGINNERS remains a fascinating and elegant read.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on July 3, 2011