"I can't believe you're doing this to me," Lori Jakiela's mother announces on hearing that her daughter is pregnant. That might well have been the refrain throughout this sometimes hilarious, always poignant, second memoir by the Trafford, Pennsylvania-based author.
While it's tempting to periodically check the cover, making sure that the words "a memoir" do, indeed, appear below the title, a novelist would have to be over-the-top quirky to invent such an outrageous cast of characters. There is the coupon-clipping mother with the cadre of stuffed bears she not only keeps lined up according to color on the sofa, but with whom she holds frequent conversations. There is Jakiela's best friend, a psychic who drives a black Volkswagen with a "trio of Virgins" dangling from her rearview mirror "like a tiny ballet troupe, their feet pirouetting on snakes." And then there is the next-door neighbor who "accidentally" sells some of Jakiela's CDs but gifts her with a hideous orange chair that smells strongly of cat pee. Having such oddballs in one's life could certainly create "issues," but for Jakiela, it is fodder for a most entertaining and engaging read.
In a sense, this story is the narrative of every guilt-ridden daughter who has struggled with, loved, and ultimately lost her mother. But in the hands of Jakiela, that story is fashioned into a tale that rends the heart while bordering on the absurd. What makes the memoir work so well is a combination of skills on Jakiela's part. Most important of these, perhaps, is her ability to structure a scene with what writing teachers call "telling details." Readers don't get the entire story, and that's as it should be. Instead, they are led along a path marked by key events: daughter gives up big city life, returning to her working-class hometown to care for her sick, aging mother; daughter takes job teaching writing to underachieving college students; daughter meets the man of her dreams, a truck-driving poet with whom she eventually shares a derelict apartment; daughter gets pregnant, much to the surprise of both parties; daughter marries the man of her dreams in a quickie Las Vegas ceremony presided over "by a tall Unitarian minister who looks like he plays a Unitarian minister on TV"; daughter has baby . more on that in a moment; new parents and baby move into grown-up apartment; tension between mother and daughter eases; mother relapses and dies. In this case, knowing how the story ends does nothing to lessen its power.
Jakiela is at her best when relating the saga of her pregnancy and the birth of her son. Fearful of what lies ahead, she pores over her copy of What to Do When You're Expecting, puzzled by its advice to "celebrate" such experiences as "abdominal itchiness, bloodshot eyes, bloody show." She bristles when other women "talk about pregnancy like it's a trip to the spa." Exhausted from 23 hours of labor, she starts at the perky woman who shows up in her room soon after, intent on teaching her how to bathe her baby. "I'm on a schedule," the woman tells her. "It's now or never." She fends off the "little old ladies from La Leche League," who insist on examining Jakiela's breastfeeding technique. "We have to check for a good seal," one of these women explains. "Like Tupperware," the new father retorts.
Ultimately, such scenes, filled with snappy dialogue and terse but easy narrative, are what give this book its appeal. The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, the name locals use for Pittsburgh's 240-foot-high Westinghouse Bridge—"the bridge to take when you're serious about killing yourself"—is a book that will leave readers wanting more of Lori Jakiela's well-crafted prose.
Read an excerpt from this book.
Jakiela is the author of another memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette, 2006), and a book of poems, Spot the Terrorist (Turning Point, 2012). She directs the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh-Greenburg and teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chatham University. "I'm a teacher and a mother, a freelance journalist and former flight attendant who still dreams of eating Greek salads in Greece," she says. Jakiela, her husband, and their two children continue to live in her hometown of Trafford, Pennsylvania. Visit her website.
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