I'd been looking forward to reading this book for awhile, largely because of its setting. History Lesson for Girls takes place in Weston, Connecticut, during the 1975-76 school year, when Alison Glass and Kate Hamilton are in the eighth grade. Alison's family moved to Weston from Norwalk, just a couple of towns away, during the summer, for the schools. My family lived in Norwalk at that time, too; I was in the sixth grade during that year leading up to our nation's Bicentennial. Weston is one of the prosperous, historically-rich small towns that dot Fairfield County; Norwalk is a medium-sized city. Despite the similarities in locale and age, the lives of these characters are far different from mine at that time; they're more like a tamer version of The Ice Storm.
"History" factors in here in a couple of ways. The town of Weston is also about to celebrate its bicentennial, and the town is planning a jubilee; the eighth-grade history class has been assigned a year-long related project to go on display at the event. Personal and cultural history are more central to the story, though, as Alison looks back on that year as an adult.
It was a year during which Alison felt out of place, not just in the ways that many young teen girls do, but because of her new-girl-in-town status and because of the back brace that she can only take off when riding her horse. Kate has grown up in Weston and seems secure in her status, but she and Alison bond over their shared love of horses, and before long, they have one of those tightly-bonded youthful friendships that seems not to need anyone else. They do seem to need each other, though, since neither has a very reliable family. Alison's would-be bohemian parents are quietly unhappy, fragile, and worried about their daughter's medical condition. Kate's father has gotten rich off the 1970's absorption with self-actualization, self-improvement, and self, period (there's a reason that it's called the "Me Decade"), and the Hamilton home - where parents openly smoke pot and snort cocaine, the son has his own drug stash, and the kids come and go as they please - is chaotic and decadent.
All of this makes for an interesting, well-told story and a pretty fast read, but I think I may have been expecting something different, and I was ultimately disappointed. What I had hoped would sound and feel familiar to me really didn't - such are the dangers of nostalgia - and yet here really wasn't anything unexpected here. I generally like first-person narration, but at times it can be frustrating, since it (quite reasonably) means that other characters may not be as well-developed as the central one, and I would have liked some perspective from viewpoints other than Alison's.