Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

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.

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29 Responses to Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

  1. litlove says:

    I actually have this already, since I’ve been on a memoir kick and I thought it might be worth reading. I can quite imagine what you mean about holes, but I don’t mind inflicting my amateur psychobabble on it. Sounds like there is a LOT going on with that husband that doesn’t meet the light of day. But thanks for managing my expectations!

    • Jenny says:

      I like memoirs a lot, so I don’t actually un-recommend this one. I do like them to entertain at the same time that they take their reflection seriously — a dose of sad with my funny and vice versa, if you will. I’ll be interested to see what you think, when you get around to it.

  2. Anastasia says:

    Ugh, I really dislike memoirs where the author deliberately leaves out important chunks of whatever she’s writing about. If you aren’t willing to at least examine (or even mention) the more painful parts of your life along with the funny parts, then why write a memoir? It ends up being only half a story instead of a whole, and it obviously doesn’t make a good read. Although I guess “painful” doesn’t go very well with “humorous”– at least in the author’s mind. There have been several funny/painful memoirs that I’ve read, and the pain doesn’t take away from the funny.

    Anyway, better stop there before I REALLY start ranting about unreliable memoirists and their issues. :D

    • Jenny says:

      I totally agree that painful and funny often go together really well. This one felt a bit too much like “Ha ha! Look! It wasn’t really so bad! It was sort of sweet!” Which sticks in my craw. But of course YMMV.

  3. Doesn’t sound like my cup of tea but that was a excellent review!

  4. Vasilly says:

    I’ve been on the fence about this book for a long time now. I’ve read so many positive reviews about it but yours is the first that also told me what’s wrong. You bring up some excellent points. I’m happy to finally take this book off my tbr list without any regrets.

    • Jenny says:

      I love it when people give me an excuse to do that. :) It wasn’t a bad read, but I just kept saying, “Come ON.”

  5. Nice, thoughtful review — I was sort of intrigued until your observation/comment on the holes and unfinished stories — that killed my interest. If one isn’t ready to tell the whole story — wait! I hate the glut of memoirs coming out that are rush affairs to cash on quirky idea/publishing trend — grr. Anyway, not to rant — thank you for the honest review!

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, always honest. But that’s no great shakes. :) Any memoir is going to be selective, of course — you can’t write about every moment of your life. What threw me was the way she’d bring things up and then just leave them dangling, as if we wouldn’t even notice. Odd.

  6. John Kim says:

    Looks like you can’t always judge a book by it’s cover.

  7. Amy says:

    I enjoy reading memoirs but something about this one has caused me to pick it up and return it to the shelf several times. After reading your review, I’m glad I didn’t purchase this book. It sounds a little bit like a chick-lit memoir since the author glosses over some big issues and avoids the deeper, more problematic stuff in her life.
    Thank you for your honest and thoughtful review.

    • Jenny says:

      I wouldn’t call this chick-lit in the sense of glamor/ sex/ clothes/ shopping. And some chick-lit, from my understanding, deals with deeper issues. But this memoir was a bit tap-dancing past the graveyard, as it were.

  8. Lu says:

    I read the first page of this and something made me really uncomfortable so I put it down (but I don’t remember what it was). After reading this, I think I’ll just return it to the library.

    • Jenny says:

      On the first page? I wonder what it was! Maybe Mennonites creep you out. :) Or maybe it was that husband. He was certainly not a solid bet.

  9. Chelsea says:

    What a bummer that the book didn’t quite take off! From the title, it peaked my interest (while my inner voice ranted ‘ignorethecoverignorethecoverignorethecover’) but I just don’t know if I’m down for a not-all-that great memoir. Especially with so many fantastic memoirs out there!

    • Jenny says:

      Aw, I know I should ignore the cover. I don’t have many pet peeves, but the whole clothes/ heels/ pair of legs thing is one of them. :) Have you read This Boy’s Life? Or An American Childhood? Two of my absolute all-time favorites.

  10. Christa says:

    I totally know what you mean about the cover.
    A great book that take place in/around a Mennonite community is A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews. It’s fiction but I think it’s incredibly moving and maybe deals with some deeper issues than this one does.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for the recommendation. I was definitely intrigued by the subject matter but didn’t think this take on it was very thoughtful. I’ve heard good things about Toews and will certainly look into this.

  11. Karen K. says:

    I’ve been on the fence about this one so maybe I’ll keep putting it off. The premise sounds so interesting but I agree, the holes would make me crazy. However, your review reminds me that I do have a copy of Bird by Bird on the TBR shelf. Maybe it’s time I read it!

    • Jenny says:

      I ADORE Bird by Bird (and, actually, most of Lamott’s nonfiction — I can never decide if I love Bird by Bird best, or Operating Instructions.) Definitely read it!!!

  12. Kerry says:

    I thought that it was interesting in terms of learning about Mennonite culture, but like you found the lack of self-examination surrounding her relationship with her husband to be infuriating.

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, that was the odd part. I definitely wanted a little more depth there, mostly because she kept defending him. The time she tried to make his verbal abuse funny was about the end of it for me.

  13. TrudyJ says:

    I completely agree — I liked this book, but liked it a lot less than I thought I would, and I think it was the “missing” pieces that were the problem for me. Very much on the surface with a story that was begging to be explored on a deeper level.

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks for your thoughts. I liked it, too, in parts, and I thought she had a fresh take on the “going home” part, but there were a lot of places she could have taken herself more seriously.

  14. Carin S. says:

    I really enjoyed this book and I hadn’t noticed a lot of the holes you mention, but now that you mention them, I do (especially the missing father). I’m okay with a few holes – that’s how real life is. We often don’t get issues/situations tied up neatly with a bow. But I can see how if I were reading this with a more critical eye that could be a problem. However, I thought that she was making a conscious decision to focus on the lighter things, not the negatives, as a way of coping with the horrible ridiculousness of her situation. Yes, she could have dwelled on the crappy but instead she was facing it with humor and a smile. I listened to this on audio, read by the author, and i’m sure that impacted my read on it a lot. When you have the author’s tone of voice to go along with the words, something that to you might have been iffy, could to be have been very funny. Good review! You have a sharp eye.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I’m looking for a situation that’s tied neatly with a bow — one of my favorite memoirs is Marya Hornbacher’s _Wasted_, which definitely refuses that kind of resolution. I just like my memoirs to take it all together, not to wallow in self-pity and not to gloss over the hard parts. To be a little analytical. Otherwise, what’s the real point of writing one?

  15. Cori says:

    “Ha ha! Look! It wasn’t really so bad! It was sort of sweet!” Which sticks in my craw.”

    Yes! This is exactly how I felt. I thought she should have written it a year after she did. After she had some more time to process everything and really understand what the nightmare of an abusive relationship does to a woman. She didn’t have enough distance from the situation yet, and therefore she came off as trying to justify Nick’s behavior, when, IMHO, abuse is never justified.

    But I did enjoy it on that surface level you were talking about. But I agree — it was troubling to dig a little deeper.

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