A high school English teacher, musician, and essayist emotionally and analytically chronicles her journey through the tangled wood of rheumatoid arthritis.
Avery enjoyed about 12 years of “normal” life before the disease began to manifest itself, and she received her stern diagnosis in 1989. She was a gifted pianist, but the disease attacked her body relentlessly, including, of course, her hands. In this debut memoir, the author organizes her text like a sonata—in movements, each of which has chapters—and her love of music is patent on almost every page. Late in the book is one dazzling paragraph about an insensitive physical therapist, a paragraph into which she has inserted cues for musical instruments. Appearing like motifs are Schubert, Mozart, Wittgenstein, and others, whose words and biographies appear continually. The author also alludes to and quotes from texts about music and illness and mentions numerous others for various expository reasons—e.g., Flannery O’Connor and Susan Sontag—but it’s a particular Schubert sonata that appeals to her in youth and beyond. Avery also writes frankly about her family (parents divorced, etc.) and her older siblings, one of whom the author viewed as a competitor. The initial bitterness eventually sweetens, and her tone is more conciliatory near the end. But as much as this is the story of Avery’s mind and psychology, it is even more so the story of her adjustments to her traitorous body, to how people perceive her, that composes the capacious heart of this narrative. Through it all—her body’s betrayals, the numerous and various surgeries—we see a bright, determined person trying to come to peace with herself and with a world that is not always kind.
A wrenching account of a writer determined to maintain the music of her life in whatever forms are possible.