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You Will Have to Know Life

Megan Abbott’s much-praised novel THE END OF EVERYTHING (Reagan Arthur Books) which Tana French calls “taut, unflinching and very hard to put down” hits bookstores today. Here, we present a piece on the oddities of suburbia from the author Laura Lippman calls “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation.”

I have always been drawn to “suburban novels,” the tortured domesticity of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and the sophisticated roundelays of John Updike. But the dominant pop cultural narrative of the suburbs mostly falls under one of two categories. First, there are those broad satires of conformity and complacency, where suburbs are little more than bland cul de sacs, the dull thump of SUVs over poured concrete, whole communities ruled by carpooling and quiet dread. And, more recently, we have seen a string of irony-leaded tales of suburban misery curdled into degeneracy—drug-dealing soccer moms, murderous housewives, satanic cults. Consuming these narratives, it seems hard to imagine the suburbs as places where real people live, with their own histories, their own still-potent dreams.

As a result, one of my pleasures in reading Jeffrey Eugenides’ 1993 The Virgin Suicides was because it cast true magic over the suburbs. And it meant all the more to me because it’s set in my own home town (and Eugenides’s), Grosse Pointe, Michigan. With its placid, Tudor-lined streets, boats clanking on Lake St. Clair, block after block of canopying red maples and pin oaks, it is place for which the term “balmy suburb” seems to be invented. When I was growing up, my parents, both East Coast transplants, always joked that Grosse Pointe feels, in many ways, perennially 1954. Changeless, pristine, inert. When I first read Eugenides’s novel at age 22, I couldn’t imagine how he could find so much dreamy sorrow in the place I had been so eager to flee for the tumult of New York City. I assured myself that it was in fact the dreamy sorrow of adolescence he had captured. That the book could in fact be set in anywhere.

We are the least reliable narrators of the places we grew up and it’s taken me nearly 20 years to write about my hometown. But now, all these years later, I can finally access Grosse Pointe in a different way. My new novel, The End of Everything, the story of a 13-year-old girl whose best friend disappears, is set in a Grosse Pointe facsimile. Writing it, I came to feel that the stillness I’d once thought of as stasis was precisely the quality that made the big moments of life, when they come, seem larger, bigger, more shocking and more moving. The more I wrote, the more I was able to telescope back, prior to my teen years of bored frustration with the suburbs, back when it was a wooded place of inscrutability and wonder.

When I was eight, nine, ten, my suburban block was as mysterious as any in the world, as filled with secrets and revelation. I knew all this once and forgot it and then somehow in writing about it remembered again. Sure, some of it is was your standard Peyton Place scandal: a teen pregnancy, a lurid divorce, a “gypsy-ish” hippie family on the corner rumored to lure young teens inside for “parties.” But it was equally a place of loneliness and longing. Last year I read, for the first time, Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s famous and haunting evocation of Midwestern small town life, each story a glowing window into a resident’s—clerk, minister, school teacher, lawyer, stenographer—isolation, thwarted desire, shame, and powerful aspiration.

Reading it made me think of things I hadn’t thought of in a decade or more. The retired couple next door whose son lived in the basement with his new wife and new baby, the blaring flights they’d have in the driveway, shrieking into the night before passionate reconciliations of equal squall. The handsome brother of my best friend who died in an accident on a slick dock by the lake. The boy in school whose mother was killed when a drunk driver plowed through the front window of a Pizza Hut. And, just as powerfully, the clamorous joy of block parties, the streamers trailing all our bikes on Independence Day.

Telescoping further, peering inside the grid of houses on the block on which I grew up, I recalled suddenly a dozen Grosse Pointe Woods Manhole Covertales, half-remembered, woozily understood. Four doors down, the elderly Mrs. Beaufait, who lived with her severely disabled son, Jay Paul, a grown man in his 40s who spent all day every day seated on the front porch barking mournfully, his hair swooped 1950s style and a tweed overcoat he wore year round. He always seemed to be crying and no one knew why. We heard it happened when he contracted scarlet fever as a child and it did things to his brain. As often as I heard it, his cries always frightened me, made of think of the dark world in his head, and what hurt so very much in there. But too there was Mr. and Mrs. L., the first divorce on our block, who, a decade afterward, ran into each other at the snack bar of Grosse Pointe Woods Park and remarried four months later. We always knew they loved each other, and when they found each other again, it was like the promise of something finally coming true.

This suburb, all suburbs, are neither placid nor unimaginative. And neither rational nor mundane. Each house, within its solid girders, may blend seamlessly into the next but, inside, each one holds its own miseries and shocks of beauty. These are places of darkness and grayness and blinding lightness, playing in the sprinkler on the front lawn. Sliding through the cherry blossoms on Mrs. Wilson’s front lawn. Yearning for things and thinking, in the dark husk of a late summer, yes, yes, yes.

MEGAN ABBOTT is the Edgar-winning author of the novels Die a Little, The Song Is You, Queenpin and Bury Me Deep, which was nominated for six awards: the 2010 Edgar Award, Hammett Prize, the Macavity, Anthony and Barry Awards and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Become a fan of The End of Everything on Facebook, follow her on Twitter, visit her website and her blog.