One of the descriptive tags I have used on this site is “history,” which designates books set in the past: say, Steven Saylor’s The Seven Wonders (92 B.C.) or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander (the mid-18th century). However, it’s very tempting to apply a “historical fiction” tag to Matthew Amster-Burton’s delightful new novel, Our Secret Better Lives, which takes place way back in… the mid-1990s.
Granted, it wasn’t all that long ago, but some of the experiences the college-age characters have seem like they belong to a time as far removed from 2016 as ancient Greece. It was before Spotify and even Napster, so you found out about new music from friends or listening stations in certain hip CD stores. (“Alternative” music, that is; Amster-Burton’s characters namedrop Camper van Beethoven, Sebadoh, Veruca Salt and Lush in the book’s first 15 pages.) The only kids who were using computers for anything other than formatting term papers were geeks and weirdos. And to get the word out about events, you Xeroxed flyers instead of issuing invitations on Facebook. When protagonist Katy decides to make a website for her band, “she went to the campus bookstore to ask if they had any books about creating websites. Nobody had the slightest idea what she was talking about.” (I had a very similar experience at a Borders, so I can vouch for the authenticity of this scene.)
Katy is an Oregon native starting college in sunny southern California. She’s always been an overachieving student, but college has endless distractions, especially music; she meets a group of like-minded friends and they start a band called the Laundry Room. While some of Katy’s circumstances are definitely 90s-specific, there are other aspects of college that are eminently relatable: the generic cereal in the cafeteria, adapting to a roommate with whom you have little in common, and realizing that while you may have been among the smartest kid in your high school, college is an endless series of fresh challenges, both social and academic.
Amster-Burton covers Katy’s first year at Atwood College in short, breezy chapters; the book is as easy to enjoy as a great three-minute pop song. If you’re a Gen X’er like Katy, Amster-Burton and me, you’ll no doubt find it delightfully nostalgic, while younger readers will likely be charmed by the characters while they marvel at what life was like for college kids way, way back in the late 20th century.