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Autobiography of Us (Sloss)

Autobiography of Us
Aria Beth Sloss, 2013
Henry Holt & Co.
304 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780805094558



Summary
A gripping debut novel about friendship, loss and love; a confession of what passed between two women who met as girls in 1960s Pasadena, California

Coming of age in the patrician neighborhood of Pasadena, California during the 1960s, Rebecca Madden and her beautiful, reckless friend Alex dream of lives beyond their mothers' narrow expectations. Their struggle to define themselves against the backdrop of an American cultural revolution unites them early on, until one sweltering evening the summer before their last year of college, when a single act of betrayal changes everything.

Decades later, Rebecca’s haunting meditation on the past reveals the truth about that night, the years that followed, and the friendship that shaped her. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Aria Beth Sloss is a graduate of Yale University and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She is a recipient of fellowships from the Iowa Arts Foundation, the Yaddo Corporation, and the Vermont Studio Center, and her writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, the Harvard Review, and online at The Paris Review and FiveChapters. She lives in New York City. (From the publisher.)



Book Reviews
sharply imagined debut...Sloss writes with assured grace, capturing the conflicted sensibilities of a generation of women.
O, the Oprah Magazine


Every female friendship has a script of its own. The one playing out in this debut novel is a gripping hybrid—Beaches crossed with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
More Magazine


At its heart, the novel is a tragic elegy to spirited women in decades past who were forced to silence their dreams and desires, and whose lives were not what they might otherwise have been.
Shelf Awareness


A smooth first-person narrative about two best friends who come of age in 1960s Pasadena marks Sloss's layered debut novel. Alex is beautiful, theatrical, and comes from wealth. Introspective, secretive, and brainy narrator Rebecca lives "house-poor" with her earnest father and beautiful, thrifty mother, who wants her daughter to have what she lost during the Depression. Once inseparable, the friends strike out on different paths at their college and a total break occurs after junior year. The incident, involving lies, alcohol, and some bad judgment, changes Rebecca's relationship with her parents as well. Stifled by early '60s sexism, she grows passive, marrying Paul, a genial, patrician New York lawyer. Despite achieving her mother's goals, her marriage is a sham and her small life revolves around her two sons and the letters she writes to Alex but never sends. Home for her mother's funeral, Rebecca reconnects with her one-time best friend, but she begins to see the insignificance of her life. Here the narrative accelerates as it builds toward the chaotic dénouement. The story's hopeful end is tempered with the realization that, had the central characters been born a generation later, maybe their lives would have been better.
Publishers Weekly


Mary is a serious lawyer, married with two kids, whose husband is a perennial mama's boy incapable of grocery shopping on his own. Mixed in with the trials and tribulations of the protagonists are humorous vignettes from the lives of some of their other friends and acquaintances—many of whom
Library Journal


Captivating, engrossing, surprising… Sloss’ debut novel sweeps across the tumultuous events of the late 1950s through the 1980s and… celebrates the terrible struggle to find one’s identity as it elegiacally rues the necessary losses.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. Describe the friendship between Alex and Rebecca. They seem to be polar opposites, yet their bond is very strong, even from the start. What do you think initially draws them together, and what keeps their friendship alive after so many years?

2. Early in their lives, Alex and Rebecca both fi nd unique callings, especially for women of the era—Alex as an actress and singer, and Rebecca as a doctor. Alex says, “That’s the thing about callings—they choose you.” Yet, she also believes that you choose your own destiny. “You don’t guess about your life, you choose. Or else…You get swallowed up like the rest of them.” What does this contradiction say about Alex as a character? What do you think she believes about choice and destiny by the end of the book, and how might Rebecca agree or disagree with her at different points in their lives?”

3. Life in 1960s Southern California was all about keeping up appearances. To what extent do the characters in the novel protect their private lives and inner desires? Which characters do not conform to the norms of society, and how are they viewed? If you lived during that era, how differently do you think your life thus far would have turned out?

4. Why does Rebecca keep writing letters to Alex that go unanswered—first when Alex goes off to camp and she stops responding and later as an adult when Rebecca cannot even bring herself to send the letters at all? What motivates her to continue writing?

5. Why does Rebecca feel betrayed after learning of Alex’s physical encounter with Bertrand? Why does she go on to spend the night with him herself?

6. Motherhood is an important theme in this book. To what extent do you see Rebecca’s and Alex’s relationships with their mothers influencing the choices they make at different points in their lives? How do those relationships impact Rebecca’s and Alex’s own conceptions of motherhood? How would you compare your own relationship with your mother to the ones portrayed in the novel?

7. There is a shift in the relationship between Rebecca and her parents after they learn about her pregnancy. How did you read that shift initially, and how did your perception of it change as the book progressed?

8. Rebecca says: “How little we know the ones we love. How little we know of anyone, in the end.” How does knowing—and not knowing—someone play into the important relationships in this book? Do you believe the kind of knowledge Rebecca refers to in that line is actually  possible? Do you think that Rebecca was able to know Alex, in the end?

9. Life seems to get in the way of many of the characters’ dreams. Discuss the theme of unfulfilled dreams in the novel. To what extent do the social and cultural constructs of the time get in the way of these characters realizing their dreams? Would they all face the same or similar issues today?

10. What do you make of Rebecca’s decision not to go with Alex in the end? Do you think she made the right decision? Do you think she really, as she says, regrets “everything”?

11. Rebecca tells Violet that Alex was “the great love” of her life. What does that phrase mean within the context of this book? What does it mean to you?

12. The story, set against the backdrop of America’s civil rights movement and feminist wave, is deeply engaged with the issues that characterized the era. It is evident how certain aspects of society and life have changed, yet how far have we come since then? Are the obstacles faced by the women in this book still relevant today? If so, where and how have you encountered them?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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