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Book Review: The Beginners 


The Beginners
Rebecca Wolff
Riverhead Books, 2011, $26.95

Ginger Pritt, the rueful heroine of award-winning poet (National Poetry Series; Barnard Women Poets Prize) Rebecca Wolff’s lyrical début novel, is a peculiar 15-year-old. “Introspective” and day-dreamy, a good student (who has skipped a grade) among the teenage “louts” of ho-hum Wick, Massachusetts, she reads Jane Austen, Gore Vidal, and tomes about magic. At local diner Top Hat, she works as a cook and raids the boss’s porn stash. But still possessing “a child’s native capacity for belief—some call it naïveté,” Ginger and her 17-year-old best friend Cherry Endicott spend their free time playing castles and kingdoms near an abandoned woolen mill. Cherry renounces make-believe for “talk about boys,” just as sophisticated, thirty-something Theo and Raquel Motherwell settle in the New England village. A gothic romance of sexual awakening thus unfolds as the portal to Ginger’s childhood slams shut.

A snippet of graffiti places Ginger’s retrospective narration sometime in the mid-1980s, recognizably void of cell phones and helicopter parents. But time feels deliberately indeterminate, in keeping with the town’s eerie history, echoed by the Motherwells’ uncertain origins. PhD students (perhaps masquerading), the loquacious newcomers fascinate Ginger, a frequent visitor to their ramshackle house, where witty, adult banter dominates. “Raquel spoke, all the time, in language calculated to impress. It was huge, and smelled of the future.” Wolff’s dialogue is spot-on: When discussing Salem’s witch trials the presumed researcher enumerates “factors that contributed to this sweep of spiritual executions.” The most compelling conversations center around sex, including Theo’s disquisition on Marquis de Sade. In contrast, Ginger’s work-weary parents remain tight-lipped, in part from private grief; a discussion of birth control between mother and daughter transpires in a few clipped sentences.

Nothing much else happens in the community, aside from holiday fireworks and parades. For kicks, youngsters trespass where “three towns live underwater” at the reservoir. The narrator declares of this recurring setting (possibly based on the real-life Quabbin Reservoir, near Ware, Massachusetts), “Now, this is what I call supernatural: times that float in recollection but are history till we reanimate them with powerful imagination.” Details of the reservoir’s construction are relayed as a high school essay, penned by Ginger’s older brother Jack. Such plot devices recall Nathaniel Hawthorne’s definition of romance-writer territory, “somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and Imaginary may meet.” Wick (think “witch”) in fact summons Salem, where Wolff’s ancestor and namesake Rebecca Nurse was hanged for witchcraft in 1692; her story is reformulated in The Beginners. A bit of Hester Prynne also resides in Ginger Pritt, a bit of devil in her seducer. Macabre sex replaces black magic throughout the latter-day tale.

Founder of the avant-garde literary journal Fence, Wolff sidesteps straightforward storytelling to focus on the language of imagination and unconsciousness, explored through dream sequences, diary entries, strange disappearances, and unexplained lapses of time. Of Raquel, she writes, “Was it the realm of her imagination, into which she vanished?” Beautifully crafted descriptions likewise permeate. “There is nothing like firelight, flickering on a troubled face or on the glossy jacket of a book on a shelf, to bring a room into sharp focus,” observes Ginger. Elsewhere, crows perched on a cupola appear “wicked, in their hunched postures of silhouetted predation.” Sky assumes “a telling quietude” as “a whitewash of clouds obscured the sun and cast a flat, smooth, cooler light.” Emboldened by a risk-taking poet’s eye, scenes and circumstances resonate long after you close the book.
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