Summary and book reviews of Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu by Stephanie Rosenfeld

Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu

By Stephanie Rosenfeld

Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2003,
    388 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2004,
    416 pages.

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Book Summary

In an affecting novel reminiscent of Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, gifted author Stephanie Rosenfeld introduces us to one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. Wise beyond her years and yet touchingly naïve, twelve-year-old Justine Hanley searches for what's true and simple—as her madcap mother leads her and younger sister Rona across the country in search of grand adventure and the next great boyfriend.

Colleen Hanley is a creative, tender, and completely lost soul. Possessing an astonishing ability to busily do just about nothing all day, she can't manage to find a job—or the motivation to hold on to one. With her ex-husband preaching to her about his newfound religion, and a recent string of horrible dates weighing her down, Colleen has decided she's had enough of California.

Justine knows it's coming—the signs are obvious. So when Colleen wakes her and Rona up early one Saturday morning, she's hardly surprised she must go to the library and endure the familiar moving ritual. Colleen pages through maps and tourist books and phone books, looking for their next home. This time, the destination is Massachusetts. They'll stay with Colleen's old friend Marie, her husband, Bill, and their kids. Colleen promises it will be the beginning of the rest of their lives. But Justine knows that the truth never just comes waltzing out of someone's mouth through a smile-shaped opening.

Once mother and daughters hit the road, another story begins to unfold in the guise of the pioneer diary of Zebulina Walker, whose westward journey offers an intriguing counterpoint to Justine's sudden eastbound voyage. Away from California, as Justine desperately tries to navigate the changing terrain of home, family, and adolescence, Colleen slips further into despondency. Forced to take over all responsibilities, Justine realizes it's up to her to make sure their little family survives this "grand adventure." Now if she only knew how to do that. . . .

Smart and poignant, charming and witty, Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu is a wonderful debut novel, a mother-daughter story that proves it's always those who give you the most trouble that end up getting access to the purest part of your heart.

THE YEAR OF THE CAT

It wasn't really the year of the cat—that was just a stupid song on All Oldies All the Time Mom liked to go around singing, even though she didn't know any of the words except for that one line.

"The year of the cat!" she'd blurt out in a half-talking, half-singing voice, and you'd wait for her to connect it to something—a thought or a reason or another piece of the song—but she'd just go back to what she was doing. She got Rona doing it, too, and sometimes the two of them would sing it to each other a hundred times a day, wiggling their eyebrows and hunching their shoulders, like two aliens telling each other a fascinating fact in the language of their planet.

Mom had gotten Rona a cat; that was why she'd originally started saying, "The year of the cat!" Every time the cat walked by, she'd bend down and look it in the eye and say it. Sometimes she'd make a claw in the air with her hand, and the cat would ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Massachusetts, California, Timbuktu unfolds through the eyes of twelve-year old Justine. How is Justine older and more perceptive than her age would suggest? How is she younger than her years? How do you envision Justine’s evolution as she grows older and away from her mother and sister?

  2. Justine, in many ways, acts as the mother in her relationship with Colleen. Which of her attributes makes Justine a natural for this role? How does she chafe under it? In which ways is Colleen maternal?

  3. “Maybe I’ll grow up first,” Justine says in regard to her mother (p. 387). How is Massachusetts Justine’s coming-of-age story? Do you think that the book represents a similar growth for Colleen or for any other characters? ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
Kirkus Reviews

A good strong voice that never lets in the waterworks.

Publishers Weekly

Insightful and bitterly funny, this is a winning effort. The obvious comparison is to Mona Simpson's Anywhere but Here, and Rosenfeld should win readers among fans of mother-daughter sagas.

Reader Reviews
beverly bridges

massachusetts, california, timbuktu
The book was very good and yet I had a problem because the word "WEIRD" appeared so often in it that I obsessively looked for"weird" and it was used on almost every other page which was a huge distraction for me. I hope Ms. ...   Read More

Rebecca Sullivan


I picked up this book over the holidays, looking for some light reading, and was pleased to find myself immersed in the story over the course of two or three evenings. Rosenfeld's writing is hilarious throughout the first half, and while the story ...   Read More

Meg

This book had its points, but in general I found it overblown and somewhat tedious. At one point, Justine walks quite a distance in the November night, cold, dark and snowy, in her socks, to get to a quick mart to buy food for herself and her five-...   Read More

Stephanie

This book is one of the best I think I have ever read. I just love the point of view it's coming from and Justine's thoughts.

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