“Cambridge” by Susanna Kaysen: Before “Girl, Interrupted”

Cambridge by Susanna Kaysen is her new “novel-from-life” in which she writes of a pre-Girl, Interrupted period—mainly from grades two through six—and she writes of the place she’s called home most of her life.  

Kaysen, now 65, explains to Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globewhy she preferred envisioning Cambridge as a work of fiction as opposed to a memoir:

‘I didn’t want to be hampered by the fact that my memory was not reliable, especially the early memories. I felt a great obligation to be scrupulous about my memories with Girl, Interrupted. I really didn’t want to fudge that. And although I changed a few things to muddle identification, as far as I can tell I was very much being truthful about what happened. I didn’t want that constraint here.’

For those who’ve haven’t read it (or seen the movie version) Girl, Interrupted was Kaysen’s memoir of being a long-term psychiatric inpatient in her late teens. In the well-known 1999 film she was played by Winona Ryder.

The trailer for Girl, Interrupted:


Above all else, Kaysen’s new book is about a place—“an exploration of memory and nostalgia set in the 1950s among the academics and artists of Cambridge, Massachusetts.”

According to the telling, what’s notably hard is when her father’s career as an economics professor periodically takes Kaysen far away from home for extended periods. (Cambridge, Interrupted?) “She comes home with relief—but soon enough wonders if outsiderness may be her permanent condition,” says the publisher.

Megan Labrise, Kirkus Reviews, informs us that Kaysen’s not yet done with this subject of her beloved Cambridge. Labrise quotes the author below:

“I have been obsessed with my hometown all my life, and I’ve always wanted to write a long, great—great as in large—complicated book about this place, which I’ve been trying to do since I was in my twenties, when of course I could not even begin to. Now that I’m heading towards that last section [of life], I feel that maybe I can,” says Kaysen. “My hope is that, if I’m able to write a second volume, that I will continue to be the ‘eye’—the watcher, the reporter—but I would like it to be less about me and more about Cambridge itself.”


That being said, this first volume does focus on significantly personal struggles of the younger Kaysen. So, what was she like back then?

Kirkus Reviews: “Susanna, the narrator of this elegantly written but curious novel, is a precocious girl who has intelligence to spare but a strong dislike for rules.”

Publishers Weekly: “Susanna may not be the most likeable young girl, and she certainly spends a good deal of time wallowing in self-pity (‘I could keep growing and thinking and reading in secret, in my dark, sorry-for-myself basement of failure and neglect, like a little rat’), but for Kaysen and her legion of fans, the focus on adolescence is a theme that works. And why not? Sometimes, parental neglect or some other sad reality is just a fact of life, and the effects are, unfortunately, affectingly real.”


Rebecca Kelley, The Rumpus: “With Cambridge’s careful attention to scene-setting, Kaysen writes interiors that belong on the set of a Wes Anderson movie…Typically novels demonstrate how a character grows, changes, and adapts to new adventures. Cambridge pushes against this notion. With change comes loss. Childhood happens only once. It might be great or it might be awful or it might be ordinary, but once we reach adulthood, it’s gone.”

Carol Brill, New York Journal of Books: “In Cambridge, an astute young girl observes the adults and events in her life, trying to make sense of how she might fit in—or whether she wants to…Susanna’s name is almost never mentioned in the story, a well-crafted technique that powerfully adds to the sense of who she is—or isn’t. Susanna’s voice is Cambridge’s major strength. A touching narrative of coming of age and everyday life.”

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