Book Review: “In Zanesville,” by Jo Ann Beard

Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, takes an overworked concept–the coming-of-age story–and gives it a fresh perspective with a story that crackles with dry wit supplied by a precocious narrator.

Set in the 1970s in a gritty Illinois suburb, In Zanesville centers on an unnamed narrator about to enter her freshman year in high school and her best friend Felicia, called “Flea.” The narrator is at that awkward age, between childhood and adolescence. The story begins over the summer when the narrator, who is identified only twice as “Jo” and then “Joan,” and Flea land a babysitting job that ends disastrously when one of the six unruly children in their care sets fire to the upstairs bathroom.

The two friends are inseparable. They are self-described late bloomers, a phrase the narrator hates. “It sounds old fashioned and vaguely rank, like something a prairie woman would wear under her sweaty calico dress,” she writes. Their exploits include sleepovers in a camper in Flea’s backyard, hilarious efforts to save three stray cats, and trips downtown to buy clothes on lay away.

The main character’s home life is grim. Her father is a drunk and her mother is moody and prone to lashing out at the children. In spite of this dysfunctional household, the main character maintains a quirky, lovable spirit and outlook toward life.

As the two girls begin high school, a rift develops. Caught between the worlds of the cheerleaders and the band nerds, the two girls hastily hatch a plan to quit the band. “In retrospect we probably should have quit band after the parade and not during it,” she recalled. Later, they wrangle an invitation to a sleepover at a cheerleader’s house. Felicia pairs off with one of the boys who sneak into the backyard from the woods, leaving the narrator alone and hurt. As she struggles with her feelings, she eventually makes her peace with Flea and finds solace from an unlikely source.

The strength of this novel is the sharply drawn main character, whom the author infuses with a wry and wise perspective. The humor leavens the main character’s bleak home life.

The author of a memoir entitled, The Boys of My Youth, Beard graduated from the University of Iowa with a BA and an MFA and she teaches at Sarah Lawrence College. She was a Guggenheim Fellow and her writing has been published in The New Yorker.

Beard is a talented writer and I hope to read much more from her.

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