Rebecca Madden, relating her story to a mysterious "you," starts with her life as a teenager in a tony residential area of Pasadena in the 1960s. Her parents struggle a bit financially to keep up with their neighbors, and her mother pushes Rebecca to do the expected thing for a young female of her place and time. Rebecca obligingly takes the cooking/sewing/dancing classes, but she knows she does not fit in to her mother's image. She lacks close friends until Alex Carrington shows up at her private school. She is amazed that this riveting new girl ("unfairly pretty") prefers her company to the clique of popular girls. How can this be? Yet Alex seems to understand Rebecca in a way that has never happened with anyone before. In fact, Alex points out to Rebecca that if she thought Rebecca was the same as everyone else, she would not be seeking her friendship.
"The characters are so three-dimensional, they could step off the page. While this is far from a feel-good type of tale, I could barely tear myself away from it --- and I gasped out loud at the conclusion, which is pitch-perfect and tremendously satisfying."
Alex, sparkling and fizzing like a lit firecracker, also does not fit the expected mold. She yearns to be an actress --- actually believes she will be an actress. This is what Fate intends for her, and she doesn't care that adults are on her to learn something more "useful," such as mathematics. Alex and Rebecca spend quite a bit of time trying to understand their mothers, who have obviously settled for the predictable lives their daughters refuse to consider for themselves. When the two girls become blood sisters, Rebecca is aware, for the first time in her life, that she actually feels happy.
Meanwhile, Rebecca's life continues. There isn't much for teen girls to occupy themselves with, but she attends the uninspired handcrafts and cooking classes. Although Rebecca, an avid reader, gets good grades, her parents do not care about her scholastic life. Then one day, when forced to dissect a frog in biology class, she finds her passion in life as she admires the mysteries within the small creature's body. It changes everything for her: from then on, she is focused on science and yearns to someday attend medical school. However, she feels she must hide her strange desire from everyone, even from Alex. She is sure she will lose her friend forever if she reveals what it is she truly loves. Rebecca furtively visits the library when Alex is otherwise occupied.
When Alex leaves to attend a theater camp the summer of their senior years, Rebecca experiences losing her as a friend --- for the first of what will be multiple times. Rebecca obligingly helps her mother in the garden and tries to avoid her mother's disapproval by claiming she is playing tennis, when she is actually enthralled with science books at the library. She writes regularly to Alex, who also writes to her at first. Ultimately, though, Alex's letters trickle away to rare postcards.
When Rebecca and Alex start college, they attend a local state college, living in the dorm. Alex has just returned from her theater camp vacation, regaling Rebecca with stories of trysts with her new agent. Not long after the two start classes, Alex again vanishes from Rebecca's life, busy with the student theater company and other adventures. Rebecca makes do with other "ordinary friends." When one of those friends marries, a cataclysmic event forces Rebecca and Alex apart, also damaging Rebecca's relationship with her parents and her college friends. As her story continues, her life revolves around the loss and gain of her friendship with Alex.
Reading AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF US is an immersive and intense experience wherein the reader finds herself actually seeming to live Rebecca's life, feeling her emotions in full living color. The characters are so three-dimensional, they could step off the page. While this is far from a feel-good type of tale, I could barely tear myself away from it --- and I gasped out loud at the conclusion, which is pitch-perfect and tremendously satisfying. There is something almost teasingly intriguing about this relationship; I will be pondering the nuances of Rebecca and Alex's friendship for a very long time.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 7, 2014
Autobiography of Us