Not the End of the World

Its title isn’t the only good thing about Rebecca Stowe’s first novel, a captivating first-person account of a 12-year-old girl going to defiant, mischievous, and desperate pieces in an upper-middle-class Michigan suburb circa 1962. At this point you have the right to mutter that you don’t want to know about another first novel featuring an adolescent afflicted with a severe case of middle-class surroundings. One Catcher in the Rye, you might think, was plenty, especially since there have been approximately 4,613 others since then. Let’s admit that the young narrator in the clutches of adolescent alienation is your late-20th-century equivalent of the heroine in the clutches of a moustache-twirling villain, and that Not the End of the World doesn’t entirely escape the limitations of its conventional pathos. Not even with the addition of some meticulous psychological fretwork that sets up a nicely administered shock. For the shock-inducing secret that shadows Stowe’s harrowing heroine is itself — as contemporary fiction goes — thoroughly conventional. But Stowe makes the most of the conventional formula, and like J.D. Salinger she wins the reader over with the sheer authenticity of her wounded, precociously disillusioned adolescent voice.

”A man,” is what Maggie Pittsfield answers when one of the Bridge Ladies gathered around her mother’s card table asks her what she wants to be when she grows up, and they ”tittered like a bunch of fat little birds.” This sets the caustic tone for Maggie’s chronicle of exasperation. It’s not just that she envies the relative independence of her adored older brother and despises the docility of her eccentric, bird-obsessed little sister, or that she’s tired of being told what ”ladies” must and mustn’t do. It’s that she dreads turning out like her grandmother, whose cranky sarcasm masks a fear that any woman might get a better deal out of life than she has had, or like her mother, who had to give up a promising career as a singer for a life of thinly disguised disappointment. ”It wasn’t her fault. She just had Bad Luck, losing her father and getting stuck with Grandmother, and her bad luck was written all over her. ‘If only,’ she always said, ‘if only this and if only that.’ She ate and breathed ‘if only’; she exuded it, like perfume — she’d walk through the house, leaving behind a faint odor of regret, of loss, of promise unfulfilled and I hated that smell.”

Maggie takes refuge in a perverse, lonely willfulness that makes her family think she is going crazy, and craziness and perversity in the sexual sense lurk just out of sight throughout this novel — behind the curtains of the large houses which, like her own, overlook their private beaches on the lake; in the nearby woods where little girls have been molested; in the sexually charged persecutions and ”games” that she strays into with her friends; in an ambiguous incident at school; in her collusions with the half-dozen alternate personalities that she secretly nourishes; and in her own half-conscious memories. There is no placid suburb in contemporary American fiction without its hidden nightmare waiting to pounce, but in this beguiling debut Stowe succeeds in arresting our natural impulse to get out of the way. B+

Not the End of the World
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