Rebecca Wolff’s eerie new novel The Beginners centers on fifteen-year-old Ginger Pritt in the summer before her senior year. A precocious child who skipped a grade at her school in an ebbing, Salem-like New England town, she and her best friend Cherry are each at transitional points in their lives. Both Ginger and Cherry are on the verge of a sexual awakening as well as a fracturing of their relationship.
Cherry begins to focus her attention on make-up, boys, and her own popularity, leaving behind conversations with Ginger about books and plans to leave their town—which everyone seems to be stuck in, like a sort of limbo—and languid afternoons playing make-believe castle at the abandoned town mill.
Meanwhile Ginger, whose sexual knowledge consists of what she has learned from her boss’s porn magazines in the bathroom at her diner job, gradually becomes more and more fascinated by an attractive, sophisticated couple— new and deeply enigmatic settlers in their dull town: Racquel and Theo Motherwell.
Ginger spends hours at the Motherwells’ house, with Cherry by her side at first, the two listening—Ginger rapt, Cherry distant—to Racquel’s philosophical and literary musings along with several casually explicit lectures on sex, as well as Theo’s often confounding witticisms.
Racquel’s own ancestry reveals itself within the town’s spine- chilling history, as she is the direct descendent of a woman tried and killed as a witch in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. They claim to be in Ginger’s town for historical research, though as they draw her in, almost putting her in a trance, neither Ginger nor the reader knows what to believe.
Ginger becomes more and more unreliable as a narrator. She recounts her dreams in detail, yet they flow from and into reality without clear distinction.
Wolff uses this technique to help characterize Ginger’s newly bewitched, blurred consciousness as she begins visiting the Motherwells every day in the dwindling summer, despite their increasingly morbid activities. The narrative can often be frustrating to the reader. One can become confused, and the cryptic dreams tempt one into expectation of a dramatic, explicative climax, which ultimately fails to materialize.
Wolff’s prose is mesmerizing due to its frankness and clarity, both daring to make one blush while never relinquishing one’s attention. She uses sharp imagery, making dreams of drowning, hallucinations of ghosts, and spirit-filled graveyards all too real. The past and Ginger’s town’s haunting history are truly alive in Wolff’s writing.
The book as a whole is as ambiguous as Ginger’s dreams, with the secret behind the Motherwells never satisfactorily revealed. Yet this dissatisfaction is preferable, as its murkiness almost allows Beginners to be more haunting. Wolff’s first novel is a worthy read for those in need of a shadowy mystery. One wakes up from this nightmare only faintly remembering, save a few images seared into the consciousness.