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AND THEN WE GREW UP
January 7, 2020
Author Rachel Friedman grew up playing the violin, and she was very good at it. But when she began studying with the principal violist of the Boston Symphony while in college, she realized she wasn’t nearly as good as her competition. After several months spent lost in a haze of anxiety and self-doubt, she decided to stop working toward a career as a musician and switched her school and major completely.
Flash forward ten years, now Friedman is a freelance writer in New York, relatively successful, sure, but still hounded by thoughts of what could have been if she had just stuck with the violin. She decides to interview eight of her former friends from the uber-prestigious arts camp they used to attend together called Interlochen. Her goal is to see how their career choices have played out and, more importantly, if they’re happy.
I’ll say right off the bat that this book is a little too “angsty college kid’s essay” for my taste. I really enjoyed reading about Friedman’s interactions with and impressions of her classmates. Their insights into what ultimately made them content in their careers is interesting food for thought. But the filler between those vignettes bored me to tears. I don’t care about the history of creativity or the history of how artists are perceived—or at least that’s not why I’m reading this book. I also don’t need to read every supporting quote from the many books Friedman has read on the subject of artists and their creative processes. Halfway through the book, I started skimming all paragraphs that began, “Like X author says…” and “As Y musician once taught…” Enough already.
HOWEVER, there’s still a lot to love about Friedman’s story. I gleaned something from each classmate’s experience, and I finished the book feeling better prepared to parent my own kids. I especially liked Adam’s story, his faith in his own work ethic to get him through hard times and his willingness to stay flexible and open to new possibilities. I liked Eli’s story, too, his recognition that some people get lucky and make it big early, but most people experience a “slow burn” until they really start running things in their 50s—and that that’s okay. It was refreshing to read about his simple appreciation for working in a job he enjoyed at all, since many people don’t even have that luxury. And Dalia’s story, while not necessarily my favorite, was a giant red flag, warning me that I need to let my kids experience frustration now when they’re young so they can learn how to tolerate it and push through without falling to pieces later.
Ironically, there is only one classmate that Friedman interviews who makes it as a musician in an orchestra. Michelle, also a violist, was Friedman’s main competition at Interlochen. She’s also the person Friedman is most nervous about interviewing, since she represents what Friedman was incapable of achieving. But even though Michelle is successful as a musician and mostly content with her career choices, it’s more than a little comforting to hear her admit life isn’t magically perfect from where she sits either. She experiences struggles and irritations, boredom and discontent, just like everyone else.
In the end, my takeaway from this book is that there is no perfect path—even when you’re sure there is because you’re not on it. And there most certainly is no path that is heartache-free. I hope it doesn’t take Friedman as long as it took me to learn this one simple fact: life simply feels unpleasant sometimes—but not because you made the wrong choice or are inherently bad or the universe is plotting against you. This is just what life feels like. The trick is to stay flexible and open without getting fixated on extreme feelings or expectations. Easier said than done, I know, but there you have it.
Big thank you to Penguin Books for the ARC!