In a debut memoir, Benedict recounts lessons learned from a New Orleans Catholic childhood, three marriages, and a time of depression.
Now a grandmother to 13—thus the nickname “Big Mama”—Benedict considers herself an Everywoman whose trajectory will resonate with the average reader. Her memoir has a wry, confessional tone, perhaps a legacy of her Catholic upbringing. “Life as an only child was often a cold existence,” she recalls, cheered somewhat by movies, her best friend (who was also her young aunt), and the family dog. Her parents, sticklers for grammar and safety, fueled her hypochondria. She then dropped out of college and married early when still a virgin. Even when reliving traumatic memories, Benedict takes a humorous view, describing disappointing early sexual encounters as “like sticking a rubber spatula in my ear.” After having one daughter, the couple divorced; a 15-year second marriage to a philosophy professor produced two more daughters but also ended in divorce. It’s in characterizing midlife that the memoir really takes off. After her father’s decline with dementia and her mother’s death—a sad farewell to a wonderfully stubborn character who insisted on traveling from Indiana to New Orleans on 9/11—Benedict realized that suddenly she and her third spouse were “wearing the big people’s clothes.” This poignant sense of generations turning explains the subtitle’s unusual reinterpretation of the term “coming-of-age.” Faith has become essential to Benedict in recent years, but she’s realized it doesn’t make life perfect. The best coupling of chapters, “The Life I Wanted” and “The Life I Got,” explores this disconnect between idealism and reality. Although the book usually strikes a good balance between the general and the particular, the sets of lists—of activities that helped alleviate depression or random memories of her parents and husband—are a clumsy way of inserting sometimes-irrelevant information. However, apart from a few unfortunate errors (“bear my soul” and “Virginia Wolfe”), the writing is solid, and the black-and-white family photographs are a nice addition.
Indulgent in places but
sensitive to the ways in which real life differs from our expectations.