After finishing the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist, I wanted something different to read. I picked up two essay collections by Americans, one written by a woman in her early thirties, the other in her mid-forties. What they both have in common is they’re working out how to live, how to be, by looking back at their younger selves.
They were timely for me. It’s a year today since my marriage ended. While I try not to attach too much significance to dates, it’s interesting to compare the ideas Fee and Dederer discuss to my own thoughts on what I’ve learned in the past year and what I want my life to look like now.
Places I Stopped on the Way Home is about the years Fee lived in NYC. In the first essay she mentions the man she’s dating at 18, the man she moves to NYC for. He’s six years older than her and surer of himself. One night he plays Ella Fitzgerald and asks Fee, Who is your Ella?
Which is to say, what do you love? What has meaning for you? What fills you with joy?
I found Ella as I sat on too-long subway rides furiously scribbling notes in the margins of books. “Ella” became not a question of who, but what. And the answer, fundamentally, was language – words written and spoken and sung. Language, endlessly malleable, and frighteningly insufficient and still human.
Through language, Fee makes sense of her time in NYC. In a non-chronological order, she writes about her relationships, her friendships, the eating disorder she develops, how she feels about the city, and what she learns from it all. Although Fee’s almost a decade younger than me, I found myself frequently marking lines and wondering how Fee had sussed so many of these things long before I did.
I am human, flawed and imperfect, which is, of course, all I ever was and all I was ever going to be. It is unbearable.
The truth is, we are all damaged at best, and we are all still worthy.
But for so long I confuse his not good enough with my not good enough and that becomes the story I tell myself. That I am not good enough.
It’s an engaging account of a young woman shaping a life that shows her what she does and doesn’t want, ultimately allowing her to become the person she wants to be.
At 18, I wouldn’t have had Fee’s problem, I knew who or what my Ella was. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted: I feel more and more like the person I was at 20. As if everything I’ve experienced and learned has sent me back there because I already knew who I was, I just didn’t know how to be her.
In Love & Trouble: Memoirs of a Former Wild Girl, Claire Dederer turns 44, realises she’s done everything right – friends, job, marriage, house, kids – but:
As you sit there, you find that all of a sudden you can’t stop thinking about her, the girl you were.
The thing is, you don’t really remember her that well, because you’ve spent so long trying to block her out […] It’s as though you’ve hidden yourself from yourself.
Dederer goes looking for her diaries which she then uses to write about the girl she was and the woman she’s become.
Playing with the form, Dederer writes ‘How to Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years’ in second person, creates a list of all the things she doesn’t want to think about: ‘The, You Know, Encroaching Darkness’, and uses the structure of Dante’s Inferno to write about her trips to L.A. with her best friend, Vic: ‘Dante and Virgil in L.A.’ These are interspersed with pieces about her youth: attending and dropping out of college twice, moving to Sydney on a whim.
Where she excels is in writing about sex, both from the perspective of a married woman in her 40s and that of a teenage girl/young woman, as she tries to understand why her sex drive has undergone a sudden resurgence.
In the middle of the collection is a piece titled ‘Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female’. Written in the style of an academic case study, Dederer examines ‘the near-rabbit levels of sexual activity’ she engaged in between 1980 and 1985. She doesn’t draw any simple conclusions but does relate her experiences to a time of sexual freedoms and the male gaze focusing on young girls: Brooke Shields in Pretty Baby, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski. Two of the other essays are addressed directly to Polanski at a time when Dederer’s daughter is the same age as Samantha Gailey. Dederer herself was also 13 when Jack Wolf, a friend of her father’s, climbed into her sleeping bag and pushed his erection against her thigh. What Dederer is really examining is society’s views on women’s sexuality and how her view of herself has been shaped by them. It’s a timely assessment in the #MeToo era.
Both collections made me consider the way society views women and the way we view ourselves. They’re interesting explorations of ways of being a woman. It is Fee’s words that have stayed with me, although ultimately they could be used to summarise the key idea of both books:
It turns out that so much of growing up is about walking away from That Which is Not Right in pursuit of something better.
Thanks to Icon Books and Tinder Press for the review copies.