Riverhead: 304 pp., $26.95
Poet Rebecca Wolff's first novel, "The Beginners," is a gothic story of sexual awakening with a sharp literary edge. Ginger Pritt, 15, is a year ahead of her age in school in small-town
, working in the local diner and learning about sex from her boss' porn stash. She's not unhappy, but her parents are distant and a childhood best friendship is showing signs of fracture.
The time is pre-Internet and pre-cellphone, and the setting is — where else? — near Salem, home of the famous 17th century witch trials. It is the town's haunted history, in part, that draws a pair of strangers there. Raquel and Theo Motherwell, dissolute, attractive grad-student-types, fascinate Ginger. Raquel is loquacious, prone to filling silences with theoretical and literary musings and intimate sexual details; Theo is lanky and quieter, alternately needling Raquel and encouraging her disquisitions.
Until their appearance, Ginger's most important relationship was with her best friend, Cherry. Wolff ably evokes the closeness of their girlhood friendship, the long afternoons spent in an old mill they imagine is a castle, the bike rides, the regular sleepovers, the conversations that stop only for dinner and continue after, via phone, for hours. But Cherry — who is 17, a year behind because of an illness — is ready to think about boys and beauty products. She's quitting her job at the library to work in a pharmacy, which horrifies Ginger. "This is just the sort of employment, the sort of
no less, that we have always scorned. Can you imagine, we say to each other, and I say to myself, when I am alone, what that would be like, to be that person, to suffer that circumspection, to see the limits of your life in every direction at all times?"
To grow up, the girls must grow apart; that betrayal-strewn process is one of the main elements of the story. There are two others: Ginger's relationship with the Motherwells, and the story of the place and its ghosts.
Ginger's fascination with the Motherwells is easy to understand: They are exotic, beautiful and throw around academic terms that satisfy her intellectual aspirations. During the summer between their junior and senior years of high school, Ginger and Cherry both spend a huge amount of time with the older pair. Although she is initially devoted to Cherry, Ginger comes to see her as a rival as their relationship with the Motherwells becomes increasingly consuming and sexually freighted. Virginity will be lost.
There are other echoes of loss, particularly within the town's geography. First there were the nearby Salem witch trials, in which the accusations of teen girls condemned women to certain death. Later, a handful of tiny nearby towns were displaced to make way for a reservoir: According to some legends, the graves and homes were moved, while others say the flooded buildings remained under the water, a ghostly resonance. Raquel claims kinship to both tragedies. Ginger's family has a tragedy of its own: Her older brother died a few years earlier, at 18, in an accident so senseless it's hard to even call it a tragedy. Is he a presence she can detects?
The efforts to bring gothic elements alive — the submerged homes, the figure glimpsed in a mirror or felt late at night — are less effective than they were in the days of the Brontës. Part of this is because of Wolff's prose style, which moves with the same effect from Ginger's daytime bike ride to her realistic dreams, failing to establish a logic of in-betweenness. Instead, the "just-a-dream" device is pulled again and again, a trickery that works against the reader's trust.
That trust is undermined on many levels, making it difficult for the book's elements to come together. Sometimes the issue is voice: It's hard to imagine a teenager, no matter how intelligent, thinking as Ginger does, "A child does not perceive herself as such — not in the way that adults grow ever more concerned with their status, their chronos, as it shows itself ever more clearly on their bodies and in the shortening days ahead." Sometimes the issue is with resonance: Ginger sees a man's penis for the first time and describes its appearance without any intellectual, sexual or emotional reaction. Other times, it's an odd detail, like time frames that don't match up — graffiti from 1986 is faded and painted over, but a song from 1982 has just gotten popular.
These ill-fitting pieces seem far from the intentional, edgy choices Wolff has made as founding editor of the avant-garde literary journal Fence. The tensions at play on the page in "The Beginners" are awkward, disjointed; the book works against itself and never fully coheres.