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Moving look at change in women's lives

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Autobiography of Us

By Aria Beth Sloss

Henry Holt, 289 pages, $29

Barely 50 years ago, North American women had few career choices. Not only were jobs restricted to secretarial work, school teaching or nursing, most families groomed daughters for marriage and motherhood.

New Yorker Aria Beth Sloss sets her debut novel in that time, from the pre-Pill late-1950s to the early 1970s, when feminism and free love began to flourish.

Autobiography of Us, cleverly written and engaging from start to finish, follows the lives of two women, Rebecca Madden and Alexandra Carrington, from high school through university to the early years of marriage. The novel is narrated by Rebecca, who is bright and shy, and fascinated by the extrovert Alex.

In their school and college years, they live in upper-middle-class Pasadena, Calif. Alex aspires to be an actress and lets the world know it, while Rebecca has to surreptitiously take the courses she needs for medicine, having to hide her ambition even from her parents. Her mother is concerned primarily about Rebecca's marrying well.

Like Madeleine, the main character in a fine recent American novel about 1980s young people, The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, Rebecca loves books. She also has an ardent admirer she refuses to encourage -- Oliver -- just as Madeleine did in Mitchell.

Eloise and Walter, Rebecca's parents, are rather unique in contemporary fiction: a happily married couple. Not quite on a par with their neighbours economically, the Maddens strive to keep their social status. They are anxious that Rebecca meet the right people and do the right things, but they are pleasant to her.

Their tranquility is shattered by a single event. Rebecca has her first sexual encounter one night when she is drunk, and it results in pregnancy.

Sloss avoids explicit details; when charmer Bertrand Lowell asks Rebecca to have another drink and calls her "gorgeous" while at the same time teasing her, the most intimate gesture in the novel is delivered in a sentence fragment:

"'You don't know the first thing about me,' I said. His hand when I reached for it already waiting."

We learn that Rebecca has never done more than kiss a boy in her 21 years up to that point. Sloss includes nothing about the awkward fumbling and frantic petting that young people of that time participated in while protecting their virginity.

But then we must remember that the entire narrative is being related by Rebecca to her daughter. (For other takes on those times, see such novels as 1976's Kinflicks by Lisa Alther and 1973's The Cheerleader by Ruth Doan MacDougall.)

This is essentially Rebecca's story, and Alex appears only intermittently, though she is constantly on Rebecca's mind. Their two lives do intersect near the end, in New York City, and the action moves quickly to a startling denouement.

Sloss has said she based Autobiography of Us on the life of her mother. Whether it is entirely true or somewhat embellished, this novel is a moving reminder of how different young American women's lives were in the middle of the 20th century.

Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose latest novel, Dating, was published in 2012.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 9, 2013 J8

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