Marriage memoirs are difficult to write. It's a tough balance: the writer has to tell both sides of the story, and tell them fairly and in a balanced way. And marriages are anything but fair and balanced, as you know if you've been married. The writer (in this case the wife) has to dig deep into the secret places of her own heart, mind, and body to find truths that are hers; and also undertake a similar excavation in the heart, mind, and body of her partner. It's a challenging proposition.
And this marriage—oh, my! A marriage between Sophia, an idealistic peacenik, an anti-nuclear protester, a confirmed Democrat, and a dope-smoking hippie—and Barrett, a super-realist who is a by-the-book West Point graduate, an Airborne Ranger, an Oakland cop, and an officer in the Army Reserve. Their breakfast choices at Lois the Pie Queen tells the story: Barrett orders the Reggie Jackson special (steak and eggs) while Sophia orders the tofu scramble and grits. Recipe for domestic trouble? You bet. But while this does indeed seem an unlikely marriage (as it must have to the families and friends of the bride and groom), Love in Condition Yellow shows us a marriage in which both partners appear to work as hard as they can to keep their lives on an even keel, even after the jolt of 9/11, Barrett's recall to duty, and Sophia discovery that she has become a military wife.
The storyline of this unusual narrative (traced in such martial chapter titles as "Spark," "Constructive Engagement," and "Hearts and Minds") is urgent and insistent enough to carry the reader through the book. But what is really compelling and vivid about this memoir are the characters themselves: the woman who insists on looking deeply into her own conflicts as she studies—in an amazingly conscious and thoughtful way—the conflicts within herself; and the man she has come to love, with all his own conflicts and contradictions, and his efforts to reconcile personal desire with professional and patriotic duty. Through these characters, we come to understand that love doesn't mean "trying to make yourselves into a matched set" and that even passionate, deeply held differences of opinion don't have to tear committed partners apart. We're given a privileged look into the often barricaded world of the military family, where danger waits at the doorstep but where there are important lessons of self-reliance and inner strength to be learned. And we see in a single marriage a microcosm of the differences we all have to work out in our own hearts and lives, if the union of our nation is to be saved.
This is a brave book, because it dares to reveal so much of the internal workings of a very private and extraordinarily complex relationship—revelations that took far more courage than we have any right to require of a memoirist. It is a lyrical book, with artful, attention-getting images ("a wilted smile," a mouth "pulled together like a stitched scar," the "rush hour traffic of my thoughts"). And it's also a funny book that makes you smile while you swallow down the hurt.
Altogether, Love in Condition Yellow is a remarkable memoir. I hope you will read it, whatever your take on nuclear threat, excessive police force, legalized marijuana, and the war in Iraq. You'll be surprised. And glad.
Sophia Raday lives in Berkeley, California, with her soldier/police officer husband, their two children, a bipartisan dog, and assorted firearms. Back when Sophia thought she couldn't possibly be a writer, she studied International Relations at Stanford University and took classes from Condoleeza Rice. She was also a student activist. After graduating from Stanford, Sophia worked in local politics, traveled, worked as a carpenter, and eventually got her masters degree in Public Policy from UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy. Shortly after taking on the job title of "Mother," Sophia began writing and publishing. She was a founding editor of the online magazine Literary Mama. Her work appeared in various anthologies and Stanford magazine. She got a big break in 2006 when her essay was selected for the New York Times "Modern Love" column. Shortly thereafter she was able to sell her memoir to Beacon Press. Her husband was deployed to Iraq in April of 2007 and returned in May 2008. Counting pre-deployment training, the family was separated for fifteen months. She is grateful to have him home safely. Visit her website.
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