Ezra Faulkner lives in Eastwood, California where he attends Eastwood High. Ezra believes that everyone experiences a tragedy in their lives "after which everything that really matters will happen." For his friend Toby Ellicott, that tragedy happened in seventh grade. For Ezra it was the car accident after he broke up with his girlfriend Charlotte Hyde at Jonas Beidecker's party. His car totalled, Ezra suffered a broken wrist and a shattered knee, the latter injury destroying his dream of attending college on a tennis scholarship.
Ezra is still in physical therapy at the beginning of the school year, limping and using a cane. He left school before vacation as part of the in-crowd and mostly likely to be Homecoming King and returns as a social outcast, no longer fitting in with his jock friends. His academic schedule is changed so that he has classes with those who are not in the athletic stream. This reunites him with Toby whom he hasn't spoken to in years. No longer pudgy and bespectacled, Toby is tall and nerdy, wearing a bow tie. They are thrown together in debate class, where Toby is team captain.
In Spanish class, Ezra meets the new girl in the school, Cassidy Thorpe, when he is partnered with her. She has moved from Barrows School, a private boarding school and has just returned from a summer program at Oxford studying Shakespeare. Ezra and Toby also have Cassidy in their debate class. Toby is shocked that Cassidy is attending Eastwood and can only think what this means for the debate team.Cassidy has reputation as a "fencer" - someone who places first in every round of a tournament. During their first class, as a joke, Ezra signs up Cassidy to the debate club. Later on Toby tells Ezra that there is something mysterious about Cassidy, that she disappeared suddenly from Barrow last year, that she won the State Qualifications but never competed, instead withdrawing four (or two, depending upon which account of Toby's you choose) days before the State tournament. Toby warns Ezra not to get involved with Cassidy, telling him that she will "get into your head and mess you up."
Days later Ms. Weng, the teacher responsible for the debate team informs them that both have been signed up for a debate tournament in San Diego. Cassidy is furious with Ezra. Thinking he has made Cassidy very angry with him, Ezra is surprised when she continues to be friendly. Instead, Cassidy takes on Esra as a debate protege, taking him to classes at the University of California Eastwood campus. Exposure to these classes cause Ezra to reconsider his future plans; that college classes might actually be interesting. No one has suggested to Ezra that he consider trying for an Ivy League school.
As their friendship grows, Ezra opens up to Cassidy telling her how it's been for him since the accident. He doesn't know who he is anymore and who he wants to be since the car accident turned his life into appointments with a physical therapist, walking with a cane and pain in his shattered knee. They attend the debate tournament in San Diego, at the San Diego Academy of the Performing Arts where Cassidy dresses and behaves strangely. Gradually their friendship evolves into a sexual relationship. Just when Ezra decides he's fallen in love with Cassidy, he discovers in a very blunt manner, that everything he thought he knew about Cassidy is wrong. Ezra learns that he and Cassidy are connected by the same tragedy, one that defines her life but which Ezra hasn't allowed to define his.
The Beginning of Everything has a strong male narrator in Ezra, who is witty and realistic. Ezra is struggling to come to terms with a life-changing accident that has affected him in ways he couldn't imagine; not only is he no longer a college tennis prospect, his social circle at school has disappeared and his body is changing from his athlete's physique. He's no longer the "golden boy", the popular jock with the beautiful girlfriend and part of the "in" crowd. He's an invalid with a wrist brace and a cane, and no reason to hang around his tennis team friends. Can he fit in though with his new friends?
But from the beginning, Ezra starts to rebuild his life, although at first he is unaware he's actually doing so. He knows the answers to the questions in AP Euro, he reconnects with his old friend Toby from Grade 7, and explores a new relationship with new girl and outsider, Cassidy Thorpe, and he begins to discover things about himself. He becomes friends with the misfits of Eastwood High, who have a secret film club, The Floating Theatre, are on the debate team and who set up silent raves or flashmobs. But while all this is developing Ezra still questions where he fits in the grand scheme of things.
...Nervous that I didn't really belong with this group of friends after all. That I was destined to forever be someone whose defining characteristic was lost forever at seventeen, rather than found."
But Ezra's tragedy, the kind "after which everything that really matters will happen" is a catalyst for change and for living rather than existing. He decides to live in a way that matters.
In contrast, Cassidy Thorpe, the pretty girl with "disquieting and dark blue" eyes, who hasn't "bothered trying to fit in" can't move on from a tragedy that brings together her and Ezra but which ultimately ends up tearing them apart. Unlike Ezra who can see the possibilities in their relationship, Cassidy sees herself as defined by tragedy that she and Ezra share. She also doesn't want to fit into the image Ezra has created in his own mind of her - a "bohemian adventurer".
The message, that in the end, we decide how others define us is central to this novel. Ezra thought that Cassidy was the impetus for his taking hold of life after his tragedy and moving on. But he comes to realize that he was the one who refused to let it define him and that he set about creating a new image, one that included new friends and new possibilities. Cassidy didn't want to be part of that and likewise she didn't want Ezra to define her either - just as her parents defined who her brother Owen was.
Overall this novel was well written but, my main complaint was the sexual relationship Ezra and Cassidy fall into, in the second half of the novel. This characteristic, although maybe realistic in life for teens in California, detracted from the relationship being forged by Ezra and Cassidy - as it would in real life for most teens. It made Ezra seem superficial, not the thoughtful character Schneider was forging him into.
The novel takes its title from a F.Scott Fitzgerald quote taken from his personal correspondence regarding Zelda his future wife , "...I love her and that's the beginning and end of everything."
The Beginning of Everything by Robin Schneider
New York: Katherine Tegen Books 2013