After divorce and her mother’s death, a writer struggles to redefine herself.
In a memoir notable for its graceful prose, two-time Booker Prize finalist, playwright, and poet Levy (Hot Milk, 2016, etc.) reflects on the new reality of her life after two nearly simultaneous events: the end of her marriage and the loss of her mother. Moving with her daughters into a “large shabby apartment,” she was determined to create “an entirely new composition” for all of their lives. “There are only loving and unloving homes,” she writes. “It is the patriarchal story that has been broken.” The author has much to say about ways that the patriarchal story erases women’s identity. For example, she met several men who refer to women only as men’s girlfriends or wives. At a party, one man never asked her one question about herself, all the while talking about his own books and his ailing wife. “It seemed,” Levy writes, “that what he needed was a devoted, enchanting woman at his side…who understood that he was entirely the subject.” That experience was hardly unusual: “It is so mysterious to want to suppress women,” she muses. “It is so hard to claim our desires and so much more relaxing to mock them,” she adds. Levy wonders about how desire shaped her mother’s life and how much her own desires shaped her perception of her mother: “If our mother does the things she needs to do in the world, we feel she has abandoned us.” Mothers receive “mixed messages, written in society’s most poisoned ink.” That poisoned ink infects any woman who dares to break from societal prescriptions. Rebellious women are expected “to be viciously self-hating, crazed with suffering, tearful with remorse.” But the author’s unexpected freedom from her role as wife liberated something “that had been trapped and stifled,” generating renewed energy. Still, she admits, “freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.”
An elegant, candid meditation on the fraught journey to self-knowledge.