Eighteen-year-old Tally is absolutely sure of everything: her genius, the love of her adoptive family, the loyalty of her best friend, Shane, and her future career as a Nobel prize-winning astronomer. There’s no room in her tidy world for heartbreak or uncertainty—or the charismatic, troubled mother who abandoned her soon after she was born.
But when a sudden discovery upends her fiercely ordered world, Tally sets out on an unexpected quest to seek out the reclusive musician who may hold the key to her past—and instead finds Maddy, an enigmatic and beautiful girl who will unlock the door to her future. The deeper she falls in love with Maddy, the more Tally begins to realize that the universe is bigger—and more complicated—than she ever imagined. Can Tally face the truth about her family—and find her way home in time to save herself from its consequences?
About a Girl—available July 14th from St. Martin’s Press—is the powerful and entrancing conclusion to Sarah McCarry’s Metamorphoses trilogy.
THE BLACK SEA
Tonight is my eighteenth birthday party and the beginning of the rest of my life, which I have already ruined; but before I describe how I arrived at calamity I will have to explain to you something of my personal history, which is, as you might expect, complicated—
If you will excuse me for a moment, someone has just come into the bookstore—No, we do not carry the latest craze in diet cookbooks—and thus she has departed again, leaving me in peace upon my stool at the cash register, where I shall detail the particulars that have led me to this moment of crisis.
In 1969, the Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann— theorist and christener of the quark, bird-watcher, and famed perfectionist—was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of particle physics. In his acceptance speech, he referenced the ostensibly more modest remark by Isaac Newton that if he had seen farther than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants, commenting that if he, Murray Gell-Mann, was better able to view the horizon, it was because he was surrounded by dwarfs. (Newton himself was referring rather unkindly to his detested rival Robert Hooke, who was a person of uncommonly small stature, so it’s possible Gell-Mann was making an elaborate joke.) While I am more inclined to a certain degree of humility in public, I find myself not unsympathetic to his position. I am considered precocious, for good reason. Some people might say insufferable, but I do not truck with fools. (“What you’re doing is good,” Murray Gell-Mann told his colleague Sheldon Glashow, “but people will be very stupid about it.” Glashow went on to win the Nobel Prize himself.)
—What? Well, of course we have Lolita, although I don’t think that’s the sort of book high-school teachers are equipped to teach—No, it’s not that it’s dirty exactly, it’s just—Yes, I did see the movie—Sixteen-eleven, thanks— Cards, sure. Okay, goodbye, enjoy your summer; there is nothing that makes me so glad to have escaped high school as teenagers—
My name is Atalanta, and I am going to be an astronomer, if one’s inclination is toward the romantic and nonspecific. My own inclination is neither, as I am a scientist. I am interested in dark energy, but less so in theoretical physics; it is time at the telescope that calls to me most strongly— we have telescopes, now, that can see all the way to the earliest hours of the universe, when the cloud of plasma after the Big Bang cooled enough to let light stream out, and it is difficult to imagine anything more thrilling than studying the birth of everything we know to be real. Assuming it is real, but that, of course, is an abstract question, and somewhat tangential to my main points at present. And though much of astronomy is, and has always been, the management of data—the recognition of patterns in vast tables of observations, the ability to pick the secrets of the universe out of spreadsheets thousands of pages long—there are also the lovely sleepless nights in the observatory, the kinship of people driven and obsessed enough to stay up fourteen hours at a stretch in the freezing dark tracking the slow dance of distant stars across the sky; those are the people whose number I should like one day to count myself among.
I am aware that I am only one day shy of eighteen and that I will have time to decide more carefully in what I will specialize as I obtain my doctorate and subsequent research fellowships, and I will be obliged as well to consider the highly competitive nature of the field—which is not, of course, to say that I am unequipped to address its rigors, only that I prefer to do work that has not been done already, the better to make my mark upon the cosmos. At any rate I like telescopes and I like beginnings and I like unanswered questions, and the universe has got plenty of those yet.
I live in an apartment in a neighborhood of Brooklyn that has only recently become relatively wealthy, with my Aunt Beast, who is not my aunt, but my biological mother’s childhood best friend; my uncle Raoul, who is not my uncle, but my aunt’s childhood best friend; Henri, who presumably was once someone’s best friend, but is now more notably my uncle’s husband; and Dorian Gray, who is technically Raoul’s cat but I am privately certain likes me best. Atalanta is a ridiculous name, which is why most people call me Tally, including Aunt Beast, who picked it. My situation would be confusing to the average person, but this is New York, where unorthodox familial arrangements are par for the course. In my graduating class there was a girl who was the literal bastard child of a literal Luxembourgian duke; a boy whose father was a movie director so famous the entire family traveled with a bodyguard; a lesser Culkin; and a girl whose mother had made her fortune as a cocaine dealer before successfully transitioning to a career as a full-time socialite and home decorator, and I didn’t even go to private school. My household of two gay not-dads and a sometimesgay not-mom doesn’t even rate a raised eyebrow.
My biological mother, Aurora, ran off right after I was born, which is unfortunate, but I’ve had seventeen years and three hundred and sixty-four days to accustom myself to her untimely departure. More accurately, she ran off before I was born, ran back briefly to deliver me to the household I now inhabit, and then ran off again, but as I was too small for these technicalities to have any effect on me at the time, for all intents and purposes it is easiest to say simply that she ran away. I have gathered she was something of a flibbertigibbet and a woman of ill repute, although Aunt Beast is not so unkind as to say so outright. I can only imagine she was dreadfully irresponsible on top of her flightiness, as I think it extremely poor form to cast off the fruit of one’s womb as though it is little more than a bundle of dirty laundry. No doubt this abandonment has left me with lingering psychological issues, but I prefer to dwell in the realm of the empirical. Aurora left me on Raoul and Aunt Beast’s doorstep, which is a good origin story, if not very original. (That was a pun, in case you were not clever enough to catch it.) Aunt Beast is not a beast at all, but she did read me A Wrinkle in Time at an impressionable age, and I have since refused to call her anything else, even though I am very nearly an adult and a fine scientist and high-school graduate who has secured a full scholarship to an excellent university you have certainly heard of in order to absorb the finer points of astrophysics before I go on to alter the course of history in whichever way I see fit.
Other pertinent points: Aunt Beast is a painter, Raoul is a poet, and Henri used to be a dancer but isn’t any longer. Raoul teaches English to young hooligans, and Henri, who was once a principal in one of the best ballet companies in New York, retired over a decade ago, his body shot and his knees ground to dust, and became a massage therapist. As you know already, I work in a bookstore. I do not technically need my job; my grandfather, who died long before I was born, was both a tremendously famous musician and tremendously rich. (I am no particular aficionado of rock music, but Shane—oh, Shane, more about him in a moment—who is, has informed me that my grandfather’s band was seminal, if derivative. I prefer Bach, personally.) Had I wanted to, I could have gotten into his considerable estate, which slumbers quietly in a trust, increasing itself exponentially every year. But Aunt Beast is adamant about not touching any of his money, and we live instead off the now-tidy sums she makes selling her paintings to museums and ancient, embittered Upper East Siders fossilized in their own wealth. New York does not teach one to think highly of the rich, a class of persons so inept they are incapable of even the most basic of tasks, including cleaning their own homes, laundering their own garments, cooking their own food, raising their own offspring, and riding the subway. Money cannot buy much of anything that interests me other than a fine education, which I have already managed to obtain for myself, and an orbiting telescope of my own; but even my grandfather’s legacy is not quite enough to fund the construction of a personal satellite or particle accelerator, and so I see no use for it.
I am told Aurora was a great beauty. The only evidence I have of this fact is an old Polaroid of her and Aunt Beast when they were teenagers, taken in the garden of my grandmother’s old house in the city where they grew up, which has hung over our couch in a battered wooden frame for as long as I can remember. It’s summer; you can tell because of the backdrop of lapis sky and jumbled wildflowers. Aurora is laughing, her chin tilted up; her sharp cheekbones cut the light and send clear-edged panes of shadow across her face. Her skin is a few shades darker than mine and her hair, straight as my own, is bleached white where mine falls down my back in a waterfall of coal. She is indeed beautiful by any objective measure, not that it has done either of us any good. Aunt Beast is in her shadow, dressed in the same black clothes she still wears, her habitual sullenness battling a reluctant smile. You can’t quite make out the color of Aurora’s eyes but Aunt Beast says they were brown, in contrast to the blue of my own, which I have apparently inherited from my grandfather. My father is a mystery, not in the sense that he is mysterious, but in the sense that I have no idea who he is at all. From what I have heard of Aurora, it is not unlikely that she had no idea, either. Oh bother, excuse me—
Dear lord, you shouldn’t get that; I think books about children with cancer are invariably maudlin and that one is a wholly abysmal example of the genre—Yes, I know it’s popular, but why don’t you get a book with actual literary value— Yes, certainly, I’d be happy to recommend something, you might try Titus Groan. No, it’s not that long, and anyway it’s good, so that doesn’t matter—Oh, fine, as you like. Fifteen ninety-nine. It’s your funeral, ha ha ha ha. Yes, thank you, goodbye—
At any rate, I myself am not a great beauty, so it is lucky I am preternaturally clever, else I would have no assets whatsoever to recommend me. My person is overly bony; I have the ungainly locomotion of a giraffe; and while my face is not unattractive, it is certainly not the sort of symmetrical countenance that causes strangers to remark upon its loveliness. My nose is somewhat beaklike. My skin, at least, is quite smooth and a pleasing shade of brown, but not even a white person ever got cast as the lead of a romantic comedy because they had nice skin. Additionally, white people are not subject to the regular and exhausting lines of enquiry my skin and vaguely ethnic features occasion (“What are you? No, I mean where are you from? No, I mean where are you really from? No, I mean where are your parents from?”). These interviews have nothing to do, obviously, with my attractiveness, and everything to do with the troglodytic nature of my interrogators, but I find them inconvenient nonetheless. My eyes are striking, but they are not enough to distinguish me.
The apparatus of popular culture would have one believe that one’s success with the opposite sex is irreparably hampered by a disinterest in, and lack of, conventional attractiveness, but I can attest from experiential evidence that this is not always the case. I have thrice engaged in penetrative intercourse. The first instance was at the age of fifteen, at science camp, with one of the graduate-student counselors. It was not a memorable experience. The second was after some dreadful dance my junior year, with a paramour Aunt Beast had dug up for me somewhere (double date with Shane; awkward, beery-breathed post-dance groping on the couch of Shane’s date’s absent parents; actual moment of entry so hasty and uninspired I was uncertain for several moments as to whether I was having sex at all; the next day, my temporary beau sent me flowers at school, which I threw away immediately), and whom I elected not to contact subsequent to the occasion. I had thought, in the spirit of scientific enquiry, that I would repeat the experiment, in order to ascertain whether my own results would more closely match the ecstatic testimony of romantic poets and cinematic heroines upon a second trial, but I am sorry to report they did not. But the third time—the third—oh, god.
Which leads me to Shane. I don’t know if there is any point in telling you about him, since I don’t know if I will ever—oh, I am being melodramatic, and also getting ahead of myself. I have known Shane for so long that his name is as much a part of me as my own. As a small child, I’d opened the door to our apartment, alarmed by the thumping and cursing of a small army of movers carting furniture and various boxes down the hall, and caught a brief, tantalizing glimpse of a pigtailed urchin of about my age being towed along behind a set of parents in the movers’ wake.
“They have a girl in there,” I announced to Henri, “help me get her,” and so Henri baked cookies and sent me out to bear them to our new neighbors. Shane answered the door and we ate all the cookies on the spot, and Shane and I have been best friends ever since. I stood next to him when he told his mom he was a boy (“Well,” she wept, clutching him in a moist embrace while he gazed stoically at a point over her shoulder, “it’s not like you ever wore dresses anyway, and you know your father and I will always love you, but can’t you at least still come to church with us?”); I was there when Shane grew boobs, and assisted him in assessing the most efficient and low-cost mechanism for concealing them (both of us cursing the cruelty of genetics, which had bestowed upon me the spindly and uniformly flat physique of a teenage boy whilst endowing him with lush feminine curves I, vain though I am not, would happily have sported in his stead); in unison we suffered the depredations of middleschool socials; as an ensemble we pilfered Shane’s parents’ liquor cabinet for the first time, supplementing the significantly depleted bottles with water from the tap so that his parents would not notice our theft (I was sick afterward for days, and have not touched spirits since; Shane, on the other hand, immediately embraced a path of dissolution with a singular enthusiasm)—in short, every first step into the adult world has been one we have taken as a united front (him stoned, me bossy and admittedly overly loquacious). I was there the first day of our freshman year, when Aaron Liechty, senior, hulking sociopath, prom king, and national fencing star (this is New York; only the automotive high school, last refuge of miscreants, has a football team), cornered him in the hallway and sneered, “I don’t know what to call you, a little faggot or a little bitch,” and Shane said, cool as you please, “You can call me sir,” and punched Aaron Liechty square in his freckle-smattered nose. Blood geysered forth, redder even than the flaming crown of Aaron Liechty’s hair, Aaron reeled away moaning, and from that point onward, Shane was a legend and folk hero amongst our peers. Only I knew the truth: that Shane had never hit anyone before in his life, that breaking Aaron Liechty’s nose was a stroke of sheer luck, and that afterward he had dragged me into the girls’ bathroom, where we’d locked ourselves in a stall and he’d cried into my shirt for ten minutes. Hold on a moment—
Yes, it’s cool in here, thank you—Yes, awfully hot for this time of year—No, I only read the first one and thought it was sort of badly done—Yes, children seem excited about them—No, I don’t have a problem with wizards, I just prefer science fiction, and I think the rules of magic in her worldbuilding are so arbitrary, it’s clear she’s just making things up as she goes along—why is it always a boy wizard, anyway, it’s clear the girl wizard is significantly more intelligent; it’s always the case, don’t you think, that less-talented young men take credit for all the work done by women who are much cleverer than they—Fine then, go find a Barnes & Noble in Manhattan, I’m sure no one will argue with you there—
As I was saying, Shane and I did not excel in high school so much as endure it; he, like me, is a genius, but his gifts lean in the direction of being able to play guitar riffs back perfectly after hearing them only once, unknotting the tangle of chords and distortion and tying the resultant bits back together again in flawless replicas of whatever he just listened to. And, of course, he writes his own songs, a skill that seems as elusive and astonishing to me as the ability to, say, walk cross-country on stilts. I have always been considerably more intelligent than people around me are comfortable with, and unskilled at concealing it, and I had in addition an unfortunate habit of reading science-fiction novels in public long after such a deeply isolating quirk was forgivable. Other students were disinterested in the finer points of celestial mechanics, and I, once I thought about it at any length, was disinterested in other students. I was not lonely (how could anyone be lonely, with the heavens overhead? All the motion of the stars, and the planets turning, and beyond our own humble solar system the majesty of the cosmos), but I was grateful to have my family, who were boundless in their affection for me, and of course I was grateful beyond measure for Shane. Only he—and thank god I had him, boon companion, coconspirator, confidant, and literally my only friend—would let me ramble on ad nauseam about Messier objects and telescope apertures. Only he never made me feel odd or untoward for my outsize and grandiose ambitions, my unwavering passion for Robert Silverberg, and my penchant for quoting particle physicists in moments of great strife or transcendent happiness. I had the sense sometimes that even my teachers were frightened of me, or at the least had no idea what to do with me. It was only Shane’s friendship that insulated me from any greater miseries than being the person no one wanted to sit next to in AP calculus. People were afraid of me, but they all liked Shane, and I suppose they imagined that even such an easily ostracized specimen of humanity as myself must have had some redeeming qualities if he was willing to put up with my company. Shane, a stoner Caramon to my bitchy and superior Raistlin, acted as a generous and often oblivious buffer between me and the outside world. People gave me a wide berth, but they left me alone.
I do not blame Aunt Beast or Raoul for failing to educate me in the delicate task of disguising myself enough to make other people understand how to talk to me. Aunt Beast barely graduated high school herself, and although I have never asked Raoul about it I do not imagine growing up a poet and gentleman homosexual is a thrilling experience for teens of any era or clime. I am an only child—so far as I know, anyway—and never had friends my own age, save Shane. Even as a small child, I spent my evenings in the company of Aunt Beast, Raoul, and Henri’s witty, funny, brilliant friends, who treated me as though I were a person in my own right with opinions of interest—which, obviously, I was. Aunt Beast and Raoul raised me to have a kind of fearless self-possession that is not considered seemly in a girl, and I cannot help being smarter than the vast majority of the persons who surround me. The prospect of college was the only thing aside from Shane that got me through the sheer unending drudgery of adolescence.
Shane has no plans to go to college, preferring to eschew the hallowed halls of higher education for the chance to make a career as a rock musician, and if anyone I know is capable of this feat it is indeed he. He is forever trying to get me to listen to better music. He was, anyway, before—oh, god. I am not accustomed to this sort of—anyway. I have ruined everything—but I can’t—oh, god. He has an insatiable and catholic palate, his tastes ranging from obscure Nigerian jazz to obsessively collected seven-inches from long-forgotten eighties punk bands. He likes a lot of the same old stuff—goths weeping into synthesizers—that Aunt Beast and Raoul listen to; he likes hip-hop; he likes, although he would never admit to it in public, hair metal, a clandestine affection he shares with Raoul, to the extent that they sometimes swap records with as much furtiveness and stealth as if they were dealing narcotics. His record collection takes up an entire wall of his room and is sorted alphabetically and by genre, and if you let him he will discourse extensively about stereo equipment with the obsessive focus of—well, of an astronomer citing observational data. I am prone to frequent bouts of insomnia, and sometimes I will call him late at night and ask him about different kinds of speakers, and drift off to sleep at last with the murmur of his voice in my ear.
I used to do that, anyway. I have not for—well.
The problem, of course, is feelings. Of all the banal and pedestrian impediments! The florid indignity! Shane and I had marched along for years, platonically intertwined, inseparable as glass-jarred conjoined twins bobbing in a formaldehyde bath, until one day without warning I looked over at Shane as he played video games with the fixed intensity of the very stoned, and felt a sudden and astonishing ache in my loins. I was quite sure I had gotten a cramp, and went home and took several ibuprofen—and then I thought of the delicate beadwork of sweat along his upper lip, the burnished glow of his skin under his nearly worn-through white undershirt, his perfect mouth slightly opened in concentration— and the ache blazed forth into a fire, and I understood (belatedly, to be sure, but the landscape of the heart is a country I have with determination left untrespassed) that something awful had befallen me, and our friendship—our blissful, majestic, symbiotic bond—was under the most dreadful threat it had ever faced.
Excerpted from About a Girl © Sarah McCarry, 2015