This month’s "Across the Page" features a variety of good reads: the coming of age story, Another Life Altogether, by Elaine Beale; STREB: How to Become an Extreme Action Hero by MacArthur Fellow Elizabeth Streb; and the thrilling murder mystery, Veritas, by Anne Laughlin.
Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale (Spiegel & Grau)
The opening line of Elaine Beale’s outstanding debut novel, Another Life Altogether, immediately captures its 13-year-old narrator, the sharp though often misled Jesse Bennett: "The day after my mother was admitted to the mental hospital, I told everyone at school that she had entered a competition on the back of a Cornflake box and won a cruise around the world."
The lie temporarily accomplishes several things for Jesse: it allows her to avoid the reality of her mother’s mental illness ("even when I was very young, I’d realized that my mother had no sense of perspective"); it gives her a chance to write fantastical and imagined letters "from" her mother; and, perhaps most importantly, it helps impress the beautiful, popular and unattainable Julie Fraser.
The fabrication doesn’t end well, of course. Growing up in Britain’s small town East Yorkshire, the real story of Jesse’s mother’s breakdown was bound to come out. But the humiliation and the loss of Julie’s fleeting interest doesn’t last long as Jesse’s earnest but clueless father moves the family further into the country on the doctor’s suggestion that it might help his wife’s recovery.
As Jesse struggles to take care of her mother, whose mental state continues to deteriorate, she befriends a girl named Tracey who is the dangerous combination of mean and insecure. Jesse ends up falling for Tracey’s older sister, the mysterious and compassionate Amanda: "None of this mattered when Amanda appeared, and those few minutes that I got to spend with her filled me with a heat that, no matter how cold and inhospitable the weather, I carried with me for the rest of the day."
Like most things in Jesse’s life, there is little hope that anything real will happen with Amanda. But what’s ultimately so engaging about her story is that Beale allows her to make mistake after mistake, including writing Amanda long love letters that she never sends but that end up in the wrong hands, with pure conviction and vulnerability.
It is impossible not to cheer on Jesse — a smart, funny, and thoughtful guide through a chaotic home life, a complicated adolescent friendship, and first love. Highly recommended.