Young Susanna revels in life at home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But hers is a family of travelers, and as Susanna is pushed and pulled from one city to the next, across oceans and continents, she struggles to find her identity and is consumed with thoughts of home.
Though Cambridge is supposed to be an ode to the author’s beloved hometown, it instead comes across as a meandering look at a young girl’s life, without a truly coherent narrative thread.
Cambridge, Susanna Kaysen’s loosely fictionalized version of her own childhood, is supposed to be an epic love story to the hometown she adores. But it doesn’t quite work as well as the reader wants it to. While the narrator does express her fondness for home over and over again, especially as the places her parents drag to aren’t measuring up, we never really get a sense for why she loves Cambridge so much. Is it just because it’s home? There is atmosphere and descriptions that feel like they’re missing from this book; the reader fails to gain a sense of Cambridge, and hence, to understand the main character’s fondness for it.
Susanna, the main character, is a precocious child who doesn’t quite fit in with her family. While her parents have the travel bug, all she wants to do is stay home. She doesn’t know who she is outside of Cambridge; this is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl growing up and trying to find herself. Readers get to know Susanna well, and she’s endearing, though the emotional connection you’d expect with this type of novel doesn’t ever really come into play. Everything seems to be at an arm’s length.
My main issue with Cambridge was that I simply didn’t understand the point of the novel. Yes, it’s about a young girl growing up, and it’s engaging, but it doesn’t really have a singular focus. It meanders here and there, among characters and cities, as Susanna grows up. There’s not really any event that defines the novel; it’s simply the diary of a young girl. The reader will be searching for meaning in this book, for some hidden depth, but it’s difficult to find; because of that, the novel is hard to really understand.
If you’re a fan of Susanna Kaysen’s, especially of her memoirs, then Cambridge is probably a must-read. It fleshes out the author’s childhood and helps readers understand the person she’s become. But if you’re new to her work, like me, this novel will probably just confuse you. I’d say it’s probably best to start with another of Kaysen’s books before picking up this one.