Livingston (MFA Program/Univ. of Memphis; Ghostbread, 2009) weaves her own memories throughout ruminations on famous mythical goddesses and pop-culture icons to explore what becoming a woman means both for her—as a Roman Catholic girl coming of age in the late 1980s—and, more broadly, within the context of the real and fictitious women who surround her.
“Shopping days were like a holiday to a family of seven children,” writes the author in “Our Lady of the Lakes.” Although her mother, a single parent living in poverty, usually bought off-brand, “or—God forbid—margarine,” sometimes they were graced with the presence of Land O’Lakes butter. Livingston describes how her siblings would fight about who could play with the package’s cardboard panels. They all wanted to be the one to fold the package just right so that the maiden’s knees became a “stunning pair of breasts, the polished divots looking for all the world like perfectly bronzed nipples.” The author’s balancing act between her own narrative and the backdrop of larger cultural images of womanhood threads throughout this collection, as she tackles such subjects as fertility, teenage pregnancy, loss, and poverty. Some essays—e.g., “The Lady with the Alligator Purse,” which explores her fascination with Susan B. Anthony—have notes of playfulness. “What I’m most interested in,” Livingston tells a friend, “is whether the woman ever had any fun.” Others pieces are decidedly more somber—e.g., “One for Sorrow,” in which the author shares the unique ways young girls lied to her in her time as a school counselor. While Livingston’s prose shines, the pacing and cohesion of the collection occasionally feel off—some topics are exhaustive, while others, like her relationship with her niece, will leave readers wanting more.
Livingston overcomes the collection’s inconsistencies with her dexterity in addressing an impressive range of questions regarding humanity, femininity, and growing up in America.