The first novel from poet Rebecca Wolff, The Beginners is a coming-of-age tale told in riveting prose.
Rebecca Wolff’s evocative first novel is gorgeously told through the eyes of Ginger Pritt, a sensitive, emotionally precocious fifteen-year old aching to grow up and move beyond the confines of Wick, her tiny “drive-through town” in the middle of Massachusetts. Red-haired and tall, Ginger is an “indiscriminate reader” who is somehow above the paltry vicissitudes that plague other local high schoolers. While her best friend Cherry Endicott obsesses over boys and boyfriends, future husbands and kids, Ginger can’t relate. “I cannot think like this,” she says. “I use my allotted visions of the future to puzzle out smaller states of being. More internal movements…shifts in understanding.”
One morning, while Ginger is waiting tables during the breakfast shift at the Top Hat Café, she meets Theo and Raquel Motherwell, an intriguing young couple who have just moved to town. Ginger is instantly drawn to the pair–Theo’s “feathery hair” and Raquel’s “total confidence”–but it’s the simple fact of their otherness that marks them as the most interesting people Ginger might ever meet. “As far as I could remember, no one had ever moved to Wick,” she later remarks. “Did this mean that I had never before met anybody I hadn’t known my whole life?” After an endearingly bold intro over fresh toast, the Motherwells insist that Ginger stop by their new home after school sometime. Not surprisingly, Ginger is immediately enchanted by the unexpected invite from the mysterious duo who promises to challenge all of her inherited sensibilities about the world in which she lives.
The Motherwells deliver on that promise from the get-go. When Ginger, along with some moral support from Cherry, finally musters the audacity to drop in on Theo and Raquel on the first Saturday after the close of school, it doesn’t take long before the couple lay bare the most intimate details of their relationship. “Theo, these are growing girls. The more information they can gather the better, don’t you think? Why be coy?” Raquel says. Over iced tea and popcorn, they proceed to fill the afternoon with exquisite gossip about birth control, masturbation, and Raquel’s dazzling sex life with Theo, all of which Ginger finds absolutely spellbinding. “That was it. We were hooked, small silver fish with our jaws open wide,” she says.
What follows is an intense, several-month long fall from innocence into experience that moves well beyond what Ginger initially saw as a simple nudge propelling her from the doldrums of her present toward whatever excitement the future held for her. The Motherwells are not at all what they appear to be. (In fact, Wolff’s rendering of them is almost spectral.) Although she is in no way reckless, Ginger soon finds herself drawn beyond her depth, a victim of diabolical force.
All this sounds a little obvious, doesn’t it? Mysterious couple from out of town seduces local virgin. But The Beginners doesn’t read that way for at least two reasons. First, Wolff’s narrative technique works brilliantly. The story is told retrospectively, so the tension in the novel is not derived from anticipation but from reflection, how Ginger looks back on, and attempts to make sense of, what has already happened. It’s a story about the past, about memory–a ghost story, really. Here, in the first chapter, Ginger frames the novel:
“At fifteen I still possessed a child’s native capacity for belief–some call it naïveté but I prefer to think of it as a positive attribute, a capability–and enjoyed a commensurate appetite for phenomena in which to believe. Another appetite that diminishes as we mature. Already, now, telling this story–though I have not yet achieved majority–the weight of adult accountability descends, and I assent to the banality of truth, to the scale’s discernible tipping on the side of whatever is the simplest explanation. The simplest explanation for any phenomenon is usually the correct one. The correct explanation is the simplest one. A ghost is a draft of cold air on the skin, a neuron-fueled shape in the dark hour of sleep. A mind reader is, at best, someone who pays closer attention to detail than most, who is wide open to suggestion. At worst she is a con artist. A witch is a woman with an enemy or two. Is this simple enough to sustain us? I ask you.”
The other reason the book feels so fresh and compelling is because Wolff, an accomplished poet, is a master at harnessing the riveting power of deliberate language. Wolff’s sparkling prose bites and throbs, sings and rumbles its way through a thoroughly haunting narrative. And so, like a good poem, The Beginners is ripe with meaning and rewards close reading. Here, Ginger muses about the way we manufacture fear.
“A whole world of fright that the whole world knows about, the kind you get walking alone in the woods–not necessarily at night, though that helps–when you begin to allow your mind to wander toward what you know, surefire, will scare you. A face so ugly and dead, or madly gaping, or slackly grinning in idiocy, or covered in blood and abjectly weeping, that it fits the bill exactly and causes you to short-circuit and panic, and quickly enclose yourself in your own arms and then, as swiftly as possible (but without running because the last thing you want to do is attract attention to yourself, to your small, unprotected head) in your own house, and shut the door jerkily behind you. Only then can you stand to look around at what is not there behind you, but instead is inside you. It is inside you. So in the end it is only our imagination that is haunted. Or: what haunts us is imagination.”
Partly a story about loss and desire, The Beginners is also a story of friendship and family. In the end, after the dust has settled, Ginger considers her future as she rests in her mother’s embrace. “Her arms as she held me and related such visions were warm,” she says. She seems at peace there, fully present in what remains of a childhood preserved by love, the only phenomenon in which Ginger can still believe and for which there is no simple explanation.