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Review: In Zanesville

Jo Ann Beard examines the lives of wild-side girls trying to stay out of trouble even as they seek it

When the narrator’s mother does get angry, it’s sparked by dread that her efforts to give her children a better life than the one she has led will come to naught. “I’m the one who’s been expected to do everything from discipline to sitting here on a Monday night after working all day, putting a goddamned waistband on a skirt for someone else,” she cries after her daughters have once again squabbled and thrown the telephone across the kitchen, banging it up and stretching out the cord. “We can’t keep anything decent around here.”

The narrator flees her mother’s outbursts as quickly as she can, sneaking beneath that blanket tent to fight imaginary battles with her brother, or slipping away to Flea’s house. Her disappearances, though logical, tend to rob the reader, for Beard’s most powerful writing stems precisely from those mother-daughter scenes. When last we see the mother, she is sitting alone at the dining table, regarding the reflection of her kitchen in the window, wondering why she can’t keep her children close yet knowing she’s right to let them go.

Although In Zanesville never reaches the introspective and stylistic heights of “The Fourth State of Matter” — the standout story in The Boys of My Youth — Beard nonetheless manages to make the fictional town of Zanesville plenty rewarding. The book fills the reader with nostalgia for an era when marrying Tommy Walton and living in the same place you grew up weren’t so bad, even if neither one brought perfect happiness. Money was hard to come by in 1970s Zanesville, but no one lived in fear of having their home foreclosed on, and for women content to chain-smoke over a hot typewriter all day, decent jobs were plentiful.

It’s clear, however, that the narrator won’t tarry in Zanesville much longer. By the end of this poignant coming-of-age novel, she is on the brink of realizing that those who stay put run the risk of growing up without ever changing.

Alexa Rose Steinberg, a writer in New York City, spent a year in Mongolia on a Princeton-in-Asia fellowship before getting two master’s degrees, one in nonfiction writing from the University of New Hampshire and a second in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge.

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