This book had two strikes against it when I picked it up. The first was its chick-lit style cover — a slinky little black dress, a hat, and a pair of heels on a turquoise background — shouting to me that THIS IS THE KIND OF BOOK YOU’RE NOT GOING TO LIKE. All it needed was a shopping bag to complete the picture. The other strike was the way I got it: a friend told me I had to read it, absolutely had to. I demurred lightly, having an awful lot of other things to read, and so she dropped it off at my house while I was away. Sneak attack! Oh, well, I thought. It’s not long. What’s a couple hours of my life?
This book calls itself a “memoir of going home.” Rhoda Janzen, a professor of creative writing and literature, received three huge shocks to her system: her husband left her for a man he found on Gay.com, she was severely injured in a car accident, and she found out she would no longer be able to afford the beautiful home she had recently bought with her (now ex-) husband. Her response was to take a sabbatical and return to her parents and their Mennonite community, musing along the way about her upbringing, her childhood, and the values that could still be a touchstone for her, even though she’d left many of them along the wayside.
Superficially, this is an easy memoir to like. Janzen is very funny, and her memories are both distinctive and simple to relate to: being a social outcast because she brought borscht in her lunch pail, for instance, or finally taking advantage of her community’s suspicion of dance in order to get out of the humiliating ordeal of dancing in a school play. It’s clear, too, that this memoir doesn’t take the trite path of trumpeting the triumph of a modern woman (sex! clothes!) slipping the bonds of a tight religious community (churning! quilts!). Janzen never renounced her faith in God, even though she left other Mennonite customs. In this memoir, she sews and cooks at her loving parents’ house, and thinks about how she can reclaim her authentic connection to her roots without sacrificing the identity she’s chosen for herself. Which, great.
However, on a deeper level, I found the book troubling. Janzen leaves a boggling number of loose ends and throwaway sentences. As the book goes on, we discover that Nick, her husband (presented as a kind, loving person in the opening chapter), was verbally and physically abusive, suffered from bipolar disorder, that they had previously divorced and remarried… the list goes on. Yet she tries, the whole time, to suggest that many of these habits were endearing somehow. That he’d loved her as much as he was able. That he was a genius. Other men crop up and disappear without closure: the man she meets at the grocery store who wears a nail around his neck, the Mennonite who rides a motorcycle. But no one stays in the picture, except Nick (who is so reliable at making the payments on the house! Even though he’s not working!)
And the real absence from the picture is her father. Janzen talks a lot about her mother, relating one funny anecdote after another, but her father is scarcely even a shadow presence. She refers to him only obliquely, saying in a conversation with her sister that Mennonite women can question authority in their professional lives (Janzen herself makes a living questioning texts), but have a serious problem questioning authority in their personal lives. Well? Where does that come from? She never mentions it again. The book is piecey, full of holes she’s carefully avoiding, deflecting serious consideration. Even the funny anecdotes, like the one about the borscht in the lunch pail, are amusing rather than revealing. (Think of the way Anne Lamott says you can reveal something about your character by talking about his grade-school lunch, in Bird by Bird. That doesn’t happen here.)
My recommendation is that, if this sounds appealing, read it on the surface. It’s fun, and it’s funny. But go any deeper and you may find yourself with empty hands.