It’s hard for a debut author — or even the most seasoned author, really — to cut through the literary noise. We would never attempt to classify any current period as Peak Book the way our small screen brethren can more easily do (book eras are best viewed through a more historical lens), but today’s literary landscape is certainly saturated in a way it never has been. Thank a far more democratic publishing industry, thank #bookstagram, thank the fact that you no longer have to be an established white man to have the audacity to believe you may be able to publish a novel, but either way there are far more tomes on shelves than any casual or professional reader could hope to read.
Even the most well-meaning book editor — laden as our desks are with piles of potential — can miss something every now and again. In this case, it takes something to catch our eye, like a dazzling cover (Ling Ma’s Severance comes to mind, or anything by Eve Babitz) or an impressive set of blurbs. This is exactly the case with Elizabeth Ames’ The Other’s Gold (out now).
It comes recommended by Celeste Ng, Jesmyn Ward, and Kristen Roupenian (who wrote 2017’s Cat Person, which became The New Yorker’s most-read short story of the year), in blurbs that boasted the book “feels like having open-heart surgery performed on you” and that urged “Read her, and you will be richer for it.” At the risk of revealing our highly-sophisticated selection process, we knew we must pick up this novel.
For Ames, a debut author who attended the same MFA program at the University of Michigan that both Ward and Ng did before her, the phenomenon of releasing her first book with the praises of literary superstars is as surreal as it seems.
“How often in your life are you inside a moment that is a dream come true?” she muses from her home in Cambridge, Mass. “When you start to have people feel connected to the characters, it’s very rewarding. It’s why I want to be a writer — to do for others what I have gotten from books.”
The Other’s Gold can best be described as a friendship novel, a campus novel, and a reflection on motherhood all in one. It introduces four girls as they move into their freshman dorm at the (fictional) elite Quincy-Hawthorn College in New Hampshire. Lainey is a free spirit soon-to-be gender studies major from an intellectual family, with a new hair color to match every season and mood; Margaret is from a small Midwestern town and instantly captures the attention of everyone on campus; Ji Sun is obscenely rich, born in Seoul, schooled in Switzerland and summered in the Philippines; Alice is, in typecasting terms, a WASP.
The novel follows the friends as they develop a deep bond, simultaneously surprising each other, themselves, and the readers as they shed and defy the stereotypes that a literary foursome can so often fall into. They survive boyfriends and oppressively pretentious Dead Poets Society-aspiring professors in college, career struggles, and relationship drama during their early post-grad years in New York City, and the debilitating adjustments required of new motherhood — all described in beautiful, occasionally achingly familiar form by Ames.
The author came to this story by way of many inspirations, but perhaps first and foremost by her experience living in the Harvard dorms as an adult (a new mother, in fact). After completing stints at the Elliot Bay Book Company, an arts nonprofit, an artists colony in France, and getting an MFA, Ames and her husband moved to Cambridge for her husband’s post-grad work, where the idea for a novel started to come together.
“I definitely was one of those kids who wanted to be a writer as soon as I learned it was possible you could be,” she tells EW. “I was scribbling little books to sell at a lemonade stand and my best friend and I would tell each other stories that were novelistic in scope — she’s the one to whom the novel is dedicated.”
At Harvard, with a six-month-old daughter in tow, Ames walked around campus observing not only everything that contributes to the cyclical back-to-school energy so many of us continue to feel years after our own formal educations are over but the friend groups beginning to form among the students.
“It wasn’t so much nostalgia or envy [that I felt] but I was so far removed from that time that it felt like another planet,” she says of the campus ecosystem. “I think writing this book was a way to imagine myself back into that time and to invent the quartet of friends that I myself didn’t have.”
Ames also found herself drawn to the elusiveness of elite institutions. The enduring appeal of the boarding school novel is a testament to readers’ collective obsession with a place where you are encouraged to spend all your time thinking about your own identity and intellectual growth. Even though readers tend to idealize these settings, Ames made sure to incorporate the highs and the lows into The Other’s Gold.
The novel is split into four parts, each structured around one of the friends’ worst mistakes: Alice’s accident, Ji Sun’s accusation, Margaret’s kiss, and Lainey’s bite (feel free to extrapolate, but we’ll refrain from further explanations of the individual mistakes for fear of spoilers). Ames began writing the final portion, about the bite, first based on a desire to dramatize the overwhelming emotions she was experiencing during her transition to motherhood.
“I was really interested in the porousness of that time,” she explains. “It’s a time of new creation but you feel like you’re teetering on the brink of destruction in a way that is very powerful and frightening.”
She had written a short story about the kiss, so she began to form those two sections into the novel that is on shelves today. As so many author experience, the final story isn’t so much one that she sketched out from the beginning but one that began to take shape and transform as she developed the characters.
“It sounds so bizarre but the characters start to walk in the room and demand your attention,” she says. “You start to see these people and believe in them as if they’re in your life.”
Reading The Other’s Gold tends to evoke a flood of feeling, from educational nostalgia to the reminder of how fleeting that period of time in which you are truly entrenched in the details of your friends’ lives really is. And, for those of us who have made life-altering mistakes (read: Everyone, ever), you’re liable to while away many late nights pondering their magnitude and consequences. The dichotomy in how we relate to our own mistakes is evident in the novel — Alice arrives at college completely burdened by hers and unable to forgive herself, while Ji Sun fails to recognize hers as a mistake at all.
“I’m really interested in what happens when you have the distance to see your own worst mistakes,” says Ames. “Do I know what my biggest mistake is? And who gets to say? I feel like my own are the times when I didn’t act kindly enough, but it’s more for the person I hurt to say.”
At the brink of publication, and with literary heavyweights on her side, Elizabeth Ames is likely staring down a writing career that will be anything but a mistake. She confesses the usual stresses as something that was once so personal gets born out into the world, but she’s following the advice of her mentors Ng and Ward that the most important thing is to cherish the readers who spend time with your book (and the more sober counsel that no matter how accomplished an author, they will always fear that this book is their last).
“I’m a worrier,” she admits. “But I’m also trying to lean into the joy.”