An essayist pens an ode to womanhood in this debut memoir.
When the young, single mother who lived across the street from Jarrell was murdered, it triggered insecurities about her own upbringing: “It was her aloneness. That old, familiar, just-we-two aloneness I couldn’t bear to see up close again.” The author was raised by her mother, with periodic appearances from her handsome father, a charismatic yet manipulative man they called Nick. Her mother wed Nick at age 16. Jarrell recounts tales about their early relationship, “his jealousy and her bruises,” with a sense of dread. Once the author was born, her mother saved up enough money to leave her father, leading to a series of childhood stories linked by the inherent danger of inhabiting a female body—from Jarrell seeing a woman get harassed by three adolescent boys to Nick voicing his disturbing opinions about “good girls.” Later, in the author’s adult relationships, she took great pains to avoid her mother’s mistakes. Still, she found herself shacking up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with Wes, a dead-end boyfriend who was not completely unlike Nick, and learning to cope with her husband Brad’s imperfections. What shines in these autobiographical essays is Jarrell’s rendering of her mother, an honest examination of this capable, desirable, and well-traveled woman who was nonetheless unable to resist Nick’s pull. Their mother-daughter relationship is more poignant than any love story (in one stirring vignette, the two crammed into a tiny single bed on vacation because they couldn’t bear to sleep in separate rooms) and similarly fraught with complications. These difficulties included Jarrell’s disgust when her mother repeatedly succumbed to Nick’s charms. The author has published essays in the New York Times and the Huffington Post, and her skill is evident in her deliberate prose. Regarding her father’s infidelity, she simply writes about her parents: “Twice he’d told her to go to the doctor to see if he’d given her gonorrhea.” Though the settings of Jarrell’s stories range from Camden, Maine, to Italy and Los Angeles, the author’s small-town Americana tone is reminiscent of Joyce Carol Oates. The work’s lasting message is that love, like Jarrell’s prose, is both painful and beautiful.
A stunning series of recollections with a feminist slant.