With her first novellike memoir, written in the voice of her 11-year-old self, poet Handler offers an intimate, insightful and intense look at her tween years as a self-described “giant” girl.
In Catholic school, fitting in can be hard; it’s even more difficult when you’re nearly six feet tall, with a nervous stomach and an even more nervous bladder, and you’re always praying when you should be playing. So it goes for Joan the Tall, an Irish-Catholic schoolgirl living in the Bronx in 1954. In this strange yet compelling memoir, she’s isolated by her height, her busy, financially struggling family, and her peculiar (given her tender age) fascination with religion. Not only that, she’s bullied by her brother, Sonny, mocked by her sister and mortified by her classmates, who try (or don’t) to understand this gawky girl. Joan’s mother makes her follow her older brother and sister home every day so she can tattle on their activities. The result is often violent: “Sonny can get pretty mad when you don’t do what he tells you to. And if I tell Mom he says I’ll really be sorry. I told him everyone already knows I’m his sister but he says just in case I meet a new kid like that guy I met on the bus who asked if I was Cusack’s sister, I’m supposed to lie and say I’m not but I can’t.” Handler writes with candor, sometimes almost embarrassingly so, yet thanks to her masterful rhythms, there’s beauty in even the most painful scenes. She creates a character who has a huge voice and a compelling story all her own. At times, though, Joan’s childish ramblings, told in short one- to two-page chapters, can feel repetitive and unnecessary. Her acceptance of her height—especially as her male classmates start to spring up—gives a happy ending to what otherwise seems like a traumatic childhood conveyed in a confessional of sorts that explores questions of faith, family and a welcome into womanhood.
An unconventional but engaging memoir from a promising talent.