A literary late bloomer blossoms in this collection of personal essays.
“The memoir and the personal essay are crucially different forms,” writes essayist and novelist Gordon (It Will Come to Me, 2009, etc.), who here expresses more affinity for the latter in dealing with some of the material that informed her two volumes in the former genre. The best of these ten essays combine the details of memory with reflective insight and a command of tone that resists cliché, while refusing to settle into simplistic understanding. “What I really wanted to do was to examine my experience, to think aloud,” she writes. These pieces constitute a more or less chronological narrative, from childhood amid the household tension of a professor father and an alcoholic mother, through a “suicidal gesture” followed by an institutional stay and decades of serial therapy, and a marriage that she categorizes as “long, loyal, close, angry,” as it spurred her transition from therapy to writing. “Writing has allowed me…to escape the coils of therapy,” she writes. “I don’t mean that writing has been therapeutic, though sometimes it has been. The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory—much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I’ve given up all ambition to get well.” Whether she’s explaining her affinity for Kafka or exploring the tribal rituals of faculty wives—her husband is a professor, as her father was—Gordon writes with flinty humor, unsentimental precision and a refusal to let herself or anyone else off too easily. In a characteristic twist on conventional wisdom, she writes that “the unlived life might not be worth examining.”
Despite some repetition of detail among the essays, each is a standalone gem.