This Week’s Reads: Memoirs on the Fourth

Memoirs—my theme for July fourth. Perhaps it was my sprained arm (I fell while walking with writer-friend Jessica Keener. I suppose we were so immersed in shoptalk that I simply tumbled off the cliff of the Brookline sidewalk where we walked. Or perhaps it was the beauty of the hydrangeas we passed) that send me into a mood for the memories of others. Pain physical=wanting-to-read pain emotional.

Slow Motion by Dani Shapiro was a re-read. Going back in time and re-reading a remembered favorite can mean re-discovering why I found a book so engaging, bringing shivers of re-delight, or it can engender a huge ‘huh?’ of what was I thinking? Slow Motion brought pure pleasure. The delight of as-remembered page-turning, as the book forced me (even the second time) to race to the end in a frenzy of must-know. (When re-reading, though I might remember what happens, it’s never enough to ruin the surprise of exactly how it happens. And isn’t the ‘how’ always as interesting as the ‘what?’)

I admire Shapiro’s writing to a point of gritted-teeth jealousy. Without lily gilding, she tells her story with understated elegant honesty. There is no ‘reaching’ for good writing, no trying; it’s simply there.

The memoir, in brief, tells of a time in Shapiro’s life when, lost in an affair with an older married man, drowning in alcohol and cocaine, she saves herself when she is forced to rescue her parents. Writing about her father’s funeral, where she is horrified by the presence of her married lover, despite having fought for his presence, Shapiro captures the head of the pin we dance upon too often:

“Huge sobs rack my body, and I feel Lenny’s hand tentatively pat my back. I hate him, and I hate myself. Some small part of me knows that I will always be horrified by Lenny’s presence here. That he will be forever wrapped up in my memory of this day, like a blurry face in a grainy old group photo, under which a caption reads: Unidentified man, second from left.”

The raw honesty of Shapiro’s work awed me. I’ll next put all her novels on my re-read list: I remember devouring them the first time. I expect to do so again.

The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman spun me into an entirely different world and point-of-view. While Shapiro shook me into a journey from obsessive connections to finding ground, Gilman’s story is of letting go her dream of recreating an idealistically remembered childhood, to heroically living in a complex real world, including facing the choice to leave a marriage that she wanted desperately to want:

“The failure of a marriage, which had once held so much hope and promise as a balm, a restorative force, was devastating to acknowledge. The fantasy I’d harbored my entire life that I could makeup for the feelings of vulnerability and pain that characterized my own childhood with a secure, loving, intact family of my own was shattered.”

This passage struck me with the sort of knock of recognition that sincere and candid writing offers as a great gift to the reader.

Gilman’s story (like Shapiro’s captured with a simple eloquence) fascinated me in an opposite manner from Shapiro’s—reading them back- to-back worked. Gilman’s storied memories of her childhood led to expectations to a romantic motherhood, filled with the same imagination and creativity that made up her girlhood. The overwhelming differences and needs of her first son (eventually diagnosed with a developmental disorder) forces Gilman to draw on different set of strength than she’d ever imagined and she becomes and she becomes an amazing warrior and mother.

Gilman’s quiet force awed me. Knowing the vast stores of patience all mothers must tap to raise their children, reading the ways Gilman helps her son not just cope, but shine, reminded me of the hushed heroism all around us.

The Anti-Romantic Child is wrapped in the poems of Wordsworth, whose ‘romantic view of children’ she embraced. How she comes to re-understand children, motherhood, and the poet made for memoir woven of elements one would never expect and is grateful for once finished.





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  1. Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Love your musings about memoirs. I’m a fan of Dani Shapiro’s work. It is impressive how she can write two such different memoirs — Slow Motion and Devotion. Slow Motion, as you noted, is a riveting page-turner. Devotion, to me, is a four-course meal to savor. Each course is a delight on its own.

    I interviewed Dani for a piece in The Writer a while back about her writing process. You and your readers can find it here:

    Good luck, meanwhile, with your knee recovery! Beach lounging in your future?


  2. Posted July 5, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    Oops, the link did not show up for my interview with Dani. Here’s the link:

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