A veteran essayist for the New Yorker and numerous other significant publications returns with an eclectic collection of pieces, all of which feature her unique style and voice.
Most of Merkin’s (Dreaming of Hitler: Passions and Provocations, 1997, etc.) pieces date from the previous decade, though she offers one from 1980 about Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (she calls him “preeminently the poet of withdrawn promise”). Merkin includes book reviews, reflections on the sad stories of sadder celebrities (Marilyn Monroe, Michael Jackson and others), self-revelatory reflections on personal appearance (lip gloss, pedicures), some accounts of her personal obsessions (the Bloomsbury Group, the Brontës), tributes to writers she’s admired (poet Anne Carson, W.G. Sebald, John Updike), and thoughts about fashion and some eminent actresses (Liv Ullman, Diane Keaton, Cate Blanchett). Merkin’s style is inevitably exploratory—these are “essays” in the word’s literal sense. Like Montaigne, she writes to figure something out, not because she’s already figured it out. She also has a fondness for the parenthetical observation; in her piece about Virginia Woolf, she has some lengthy examples of this—appropriate, for Woolf herself loved them. Some of Merkin’s essays are aimed directly at women (though curious men—and/or ignorant ones—will surely find them informative): a piece about handbags (she’s bought and returned many), another on flirting, another about having male gay friends. One of her most touching essays is about the rise and fall of Betty Friedan, whom Merkin credits for lighting the fuse on the women’s movement. However, according to the author, Friedan’s personal flaws—and the rise of the more telegenic Gloria Steinem—occasioned her fall from power. Throughout, Merkin also comments in a variety of ways about her own appearance—her physical virtues, the effects of aging and the broken promises to herself.
Essays that go down like candy but nourish like health food.