The protagonist in Jo Ann Beard’s debut novel, In Zanesville, is one we’ve met before. The unnamed 14-year-old narrator is reminiscent of Lee Fiora in Prep, Eveline in Anthropology of an American Girl and writer Sloane Crosley (I Was Told There’d Be Cake). But she’s seemingly sourced from every girl’s childhood.
There are the disastrous babysitting escapades the teen and her best friend Felicia, who feign British accents, find themselves in; the horrible and oh-so-familiar feeling when a clique of popular girls leave her at a slumber party to meet, ugh, boys; and the three feral kittens the besties hide in a camper, much to their mothers’ chagrin.
So goes In Zanesville: The story of a few months in a 1970s adolescent’s life is so accurately portrayed, the dialogue so precisely rendered, the inner monologue so painfully evocative that the reader plainly remembers being the late-blooming teen herself. The book isn’t nostalgic, because Beard doesn’t write as an adult recalling how she thinks she felt way back when. Instead, the novel reads like a diary of a girl’s 14th year, complete with the dual terror and delight of a possible phone call from a boy and the gut-wrenching discovery of parents’ flawed humanity.
Beard’s narrator is eclectic, thoughtful, witty, imaginative and constantly trying to catch up to her peers, who already seem to know how the world works. The novel is as aching as “The Wonder Years,” but instead of following Kevin and Winnie, the book celebrates the relationship between two misfit best friends. To read In Zanesville is to step back in time—revisiting the bitter and the sweet memories we all share.