Chosen as one of "Summer's Best Books" by PEOPLE MAGAZINE: "Suprisingly insightful and seriously fun."
One of O MAGAZINE's "Season's Best"
A COSMOPOLITAN MAGAZINE "July Reads" Pick
Named one of REFINERY 29's “21 New Authors to Watch” in 2015
Charlotte Silver dazzles with a ruefully funny coming-of-age novel that follows two recent Bennington grads who are determined to make it in the Big Apple.
Bennington College, founded in 1932 as a suitable refuge for the wayward daughters of good families, maintains its saucy reputation for attracting free spirits. There, acres outnumber students, the faculty is composed of fading hippie and clothing is largely optional. Or, as J. D. Salinger put it in Franny and Zooey: a Bennington-type "looked like she'd spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress."
Cassandra Puffin and Sylvie Furst met in high school but cement what they ardently believe will be everlasting friendship on Bennington's idyllic Vermont campus. Graduation sees Sylvie moving to New York City, where, later on their twenties, Cassandra joins her. These early, delirious years are spent decorating their Fort Greene apartment with flea market gems, dating "artists", and trying to figure out what they're doing with their lives.
The girls are acutely and caustically observant of the unique rhythms of the city but tone deaf to their own imperfections, which eventually drives a wedge between them. Equal parts heartfelt and hilarious, Bennington Girls Are Easy is a novel about female friendships—how with one word from a confidante can lift you up or tear you down—and how difficult it is to balance someone else's devastatingly funny lapses in judgment with your own professional and personal missteps.
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A graduate of Bennington College, CHARLOTTE SILVER is the author of Charlotte au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood, and the YA novel, The Summer Invitation.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"How can somebody actually dance themselves to death?"
Professor Sobel, taking a drag on his cigarette, thought to himself: I left that gig at Columbia for this? The setting was Bennington, Vermont. The subject: Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. An afternoon in early March, the doldrums of mud season: the bitterness of the cold mattered little to Professor Sobel, who insisted on teaching all of his classical music courses outside in a meadow, no matter what the season, so he could smoke unlimited cigarettes in a pleasing, rhythmic continuity. Questions and comments were not encouraged in Professor Sobel's courses, though in the free-wheeling spirit of progressive education were nevertheless volunteered. The students, among them Cassandra, sat crouched in the mud awaiting his response to Chelsea Hayden-Smith, the Bambi-eyed sophomore who had interrupted him in the midst of a majestic monologue about the finer thematic points of Stravinsky's masterpiece.
"Are you from Kansas?" he asked her. "Have you absolutely no imagination to speak of?"
He put out his cigarette, disgruntled. God, was he looking forward to class being over so he could go meet that leggy cello student he was banging for a quickie in the Secret Garden. And so:
"Class dismissed," Professor Sobel announced without further ado.
But one year later Cassandra wondered whether or not Chelsea, during her final moments on earth, may have thought back to The Rite of Spring, as she and her best friend Beverly Tinker-Jones plummeted to their deaths through the wide glass windows of the fifth-floor dance studio of the college's performing arts building. Cassandra wondered, too, if when Professor Sobel first heard the news he guffawed, cried, or simply, as was most likely the case, lit another cigarette and never thought of Chelsea Hayden-Smith ever again.
Chelsea and the poor, fawnlike Beverly, both of them ethereally beautiful young girls, ages twenty and nineteen respectively, were said to have died immediately on impact. The coroner in Bennington, Vermont, was long used to handling the college's many overdoses and suicides, but this latest tragedy was something new. He had never known, previously, of anybody dancing themselves to death. But he, unlike Chelsea, was not so young or so impertinent as to question the unexpected twists of this cruel universe.
The cause of Chelsea's and Beverly's deaths was said to be an accident, and yet the rumor mill began swiftly, and with inexorable force, from the minute the news hit the dining hall, where the students who were not still in bed sat spreading Tofutti cream cheese on their bagels and nursing their hangovers with grape Pedialyte. People said that the girls had been pushed through the window. People said that the Wiccans on campus might have had something to do with it, though this theory did not hold up when you stopped to consider that none of the Wiccans, almost all of whom were overweight, had anything to do with the modern dancers; what the Wiccans mostly did was hang out in the house living rooms and braid one another's hair and eat chocolate cake. (Cassandra knew this for a fact, having once crashed a meet-up of theirs just because she was hungry.) Other people said that ghosts were involved, and if you had ever been on the Bennington campus late at night, why not? It was a ghostly, godless place. There was actually a name for it and its peculiar geography: the Bennington Triangle. This had been given to it on account of a number of individuals who had gone missing from this supposedly serene corner of southwestern Vermont in the last century, including but by no means limited to a Bennington sophomore who had disappeared from one of the hiking trails near campus. And now, just look at what had become of the dancers--not a disappearance per se but an otherworldly turn of events that was queer and creepy nonetheless.
Cassandra learned one thing from all of this, anyway: that modern dance at Bennington was a dangerous discipline and that she had been right to steer clear of the performing arts building all these years. Not to mention the hiking trails.
She was an English major.
And, as such, throughout the years she often thought back to Chelsea and Beverly. The spring she graduated was the spring the dancers died. There seemed, in retrospect, to have been some kind of warning, for her and all of the other young women of Bennington who graduated with the class of 2003, in the unforgettable image of those tender white feminine bodies slain on the black pavement.
Just like those two ill-fated young women, Chelsea Hayden-Smith and Beverly Tinker-Jones, Cassandra Puffin and Sylvie Furst were best friends. Before ending up at Bennington together, both girls had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Right from the beginning, in high school, theirs was a fast, fiery friendship, a brief, beautiful phenomenon particular to the golden-green wilds of adolescence. Cassandra fell in love with Sylvie--for romantic love is the forte of teenage girls. It happened one afternoon after school, as they were sipping raspberry lime rickeys in the Sunken Garden at Radcliffe in the first, bewitching hours of getting to know each other when they were just fourteen years old. They learned in that single afternoon what it would have taken two grown women to learn in a year: the elaborate subtleties of tortured family dynamics, traumatic holidays, and, this being Cambridge, shrinks, medications, and so on. They didn't tell each other any sexual secrets that afternoon because there were none, yet; those came later.
One night that spring, the spring the dancers died, Cassandra was lying in bed in her dorm room when she got a phone call from the security booth. It was Alphie, the avuncular head of campus security, whose primary job responsibility appeared to be passing out candy canes in the dining hall during the holidays and who knew every student by name, saying: "Cassandra, Sylvie is here."
Sylvie? thought Cassandra, waking up from a nice, long nap. Sylvie? As far as she knew, Sylvie was supposed to be still abroad in Florence. Or was she in Madrid or Barcelona by now? Maybe. She'd had plans to travel all over Europe by train after her program ran out. Also, she craved a change of scenery in order to get over the tumultuous affair she'd been having with the photography TA, the spellbinding saga of which Cassandra had been privy to over a series of outrageously expensive international phone calls.
"But if you're in Italy, then for God's sake why aren't you sleeping with an Italian?" Cassandra had wanted to know, and Sylvie had laughed and said, "Good question! I guess I'm just being perverse that way."
Well, in any event, Florence or Barcelona or whatever, Sylvie was supposed to be off in Europe. And now here she was, appearing quite without warning in Bennington, Vermont?
Still lying on her twin bed--the exact spot where she had spent the better part of her ruinously expensive education--Cassandra sighed and looked out her window. It was one of those enchanted mid-May evenings, that time of year when the fragrance of the roses is beginning to drown out that of the lilacs. On the lawn, students were doing all of the usual unchallenging outdoor activities: tai chi, Ultimate Frisbee, topless sunbathing--though the sun, at this point, was beginning to set. No matter; certain Bennington girls could be counted on to take their tops off in any weather short of a blizzard. And there was no need, by the way, for even a blizzard to stop them: it was a "clothing-optional" campus. Beyond the lawn was the view of the Green Mountains spoken of with dark, all-knowing irony as "the End of the World."
Oh! I'm going to miss this place, thought Cassandra with one of the sweet pangs of nostalgia that were so becoming to her melodramatic sense of herself. She got up and brushed out her hair, which she was still wearing, in those days, quite long. Then she walked across the lawn to meet Sylvie at the security booth. On her way over, she passed a beautiful redhead pedaling a blue Schwinn bicycle. On closer inspection, it was none other than the bisexual, cross-dressing ringleader of the modern dancers, Angelica Rocky-Divine, whose long, indolent white body could frequently be glimpsed entirely unclothed in all its plush splendor while doing cartwheels at the End of the World.
Angelica's bright, unshackled beauty, as well as a smattering of indomitable spinster aunts, had attended Bennington before her, and her bright, unshackled beauty, redolent of the meadows themselves, seemed to Cassandra to evoke the original spirit of the college when it was founded in the year 1932 as a suitable refuge for the wayward daughters of good families. Bennington girls even today were proud of their saucy reputation, and not one of them on the entire campus could have failed to be familiar with Salinger's description in Franny and Zooey of a Bennington-type chick on her way to New Haven for a Yale football game who "looked like she'd spent the whole train ride in the john, sculpting or painting or something, or as though she had a leotard on under her dress." Angelica had gone so far as to trump that fictional girl, having once had boisterous sex in the john of an Amtrak train on a jaunt to New York City to see some show at the Guggenheim with her architecture class, the object of her flamboyantly predatory designs being a short, yet somehow still Lawrencian, wood-making student, whose consistently upright cock she thought was very, very good-looking, a real piece of aesthetic human construction.
Oh! thought Cassandra again. This place is just so charming, like something out of a Salinger story. Was she ready for the Real World?
The answer came to her in a snap. The answer was not at all.
Even then, and this was several years before the world economy collapsed, Bennington alumni were a remarkably nonresilient lot. The boys lucky enough to be dating students a couple years younger than them could be found squatting in their girlfriend's dorm rooms; these saintly young women could be seen, at mealtimes, packing up bananas and oatmeal cookies to bring back to them.
In the distance, Cassandra could finally make out Sylvie, a small brunette figure in a white dress waving from the foot of the security booth. They squealed and hugged, as girls will do. It had been almost a year now since they had seen each other, the longest they had ever been apart.
"You could have called! I had no idea. I thought you were still in Europe."
"You know me, Cassandra. I don't call," said Sylvie. It was true, and that was part of her charm--the way she thrived on the drama of the last minute. But the most delightful thing about Sylvie was that she was always up for anything.
It was then that Cassandra did a double take and stepped back to look at her best friend. Until recently, Sylvie had been pretty but underdeveloped. Her voluptuous, Victorian-era dark hair had overwhelmed her tiny body; she was like a little brown velveteen mouse. A late bloomer--coming back from Italy, that tiny body had ripened and was filling out a white peasant dress with red rickrack trim. Cassandra complimented her on the dress immediately.
"Oh this," said Sylvie, glancing down at her firm brown breasts set like two precious jewels in the sloping white neckline, "yeah, I picked it up at this market in Barcelona."
"Oh, so you did make it to Spain then?"
"Oh yeah. I went all over." Then she touched the top of her head and said, "Oh my God, Cassandra, you haven't said anything! My haircut! I was hoping you'd like it."
Sylvie's haircut--so that explained it: shorn and gone, that black, horselike plait of hers. Now she had a pixie cut, a style that Cassandra upon closer inspection decided became Sylvie's petite style of beauty better than any other. And, on the right girl, a good pixie cut can be incredibly sexy. Sylvie was the right girl. Her skin took the sun well and her arms were strong and brown.
Cassandra, in contrast, was the peaches-and-cream type, soft around the edges. She was pretty but klutzy and there was a certain failure of carriage that prevented her from being, like so many other girls at Bennington, what is ruthlessly known as "hot." She had this foggy, underwater look in her big blue eyes: a look that marked her as someone who had spent entirely too much of her childhood alone. Perhaps it was because, as she and Sylvie had discussed at length, her father had died when she was a little girl. They both agreed that girls who had grown up without fathers often bore this rather crippled air.
Tonight, Sylvie was carrying a vintage set of watercolors in a blue waxed-cotton tote bag with a pattern of California oranges. She might have been in a catalog, Cassandra thought: the beautiful American art-school girl, back from time abroad, the beneficiary of a magnificent sentimental education--sex and sunshine and red wine and pasta and a good European haircut. That photography TA must have been pretty good in the sack, she decided, even if he wasn't Italian.
"I love your haircut!" she insisted to Sylvie, hugging her again. "Oh my God, it's just so chic! You look," she said, with what Sylvie noticed was actually rather a mournful expression on her face, "absolutely beautiful."
And the two young women walked arm in arm out onto the lawn, breathing in the roses and what remained of the lilacs.
Later on that same evening, Sylvie and Cassandra sat in Adirondack chairs all the way out at the End of the World.
"So," Sylvie said to Cassandra, "what's the latest around here?"
"Hmm. Well, sexually speaking, black boys are all the rage on campus."
"Oh, great. All two of them."
"Well. Pansy Chapin's sleeping with that guy Kojo, you know, the one who played Mercutio in that production of Romeo in the Hood."
"But wait, what about that tall, handsome boyfriend of hers, the one she's always visiting with the duplex on Central Park South? She'd better not let him go! He must be loaded."
"Oh, he is loaded, really, really loaded, and he's still in the picture. They're engaged now. He popped the question on Torcello, this island off the coast of--"
"Venice! Oh my God, I went there. It's gorgeous."
"I bet it is! Actually, she's in the Hamptons with him this weekend. Kojo's just something on the side."
"That poor guy. She's always cheating on him."
"Pansy says it's true."
"What they say about black guys."
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