An ongoing conversation takes place within the community of memoir writers around topics such as privacy of others, respect, compassion, and truth. Ruth Reichl tackles these issues head-on in this book. She begins by explaining the chagrin she felt after reading her first memoir volume, Tender at the Bone, when she realized the full extent to which she had used her mother's foibles for dramatic and comic effect. Even though her mother had been dead for years before that book was published, Ruth still felt a strong sense that she had betrayed her. This deeply moving new volume is offered in atonement. It may provide guidance for memoirists who are struggling with these concerns.
In the compact space of 120 small pages (the book measures only 5x7 inches), Reichl takes us along on her personal journey of discovery as she explores a box of old letters and diary-like notes scribbled on random scraps of paper. This is a heroic journey on her part, as she was reluctant to start, uncertain that she wanted to know what she might find. Over the course of the journey, she finds compassion and deep understanding of the pain her mother felt at the strictures of life in her generation, compounded by a bipolar disorder that was never effectively controlled. In a very real sense, this story depicts the frustration of an entire generation of women who lived at an intersection of history when modern conveniences had replaced many of the chores women had traditionally done around the home without providing them adequate opportunity to direct their energies into new domains.
Reichl is humbled as she realizes the sacrifices her mother made with regard to her relationship with her beloved daughter in order to ensure that she would have a better, happier life than her own. She is chagrined to realize that her mother's efforts had been so successful that she had never noticed. By including her own reactions and memories evoked by reading her mother's notes, she ensured that this book is truly memoir, and not simply a biography of her mother.
These matters of the heart are beautifully conveyed with the eloquence and flair that readers of her first three volumes of memoir have come to expect. As a writer and teacher of memoir myself, I always read with sticky flags on hand to mark key points, deft descriptions, and other memorable elements. This book looks like a porcupine with an unprecedented proportion of pages sporting green tabs along the edge.
Daughters of any age should treasure this book, especially those with living mothers. Perhaps Reichl's regret at not having made the effort to understand her mother's true nature better while she was still living will inspire many younger women to make the effort to learn more about their mothers while there is still time.
Ruth Reichl is the author of Comfort Me with Apples, Tender at the Bone, and Garlic and Sapphires. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Gourmet magazine, the restaurant critic at The New York Times, and the food editor and restaurant critic at the Los Angeles Times. She lives in New York City. Visit her website.
(See other reviews of this book, which was previously published as Not Becoming My Mother, here and here)
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