MAY 25, 2015
I COULDN’T WAIT to read Sonja Livingston’s Queen of the Fall, subtitled A Memoir of Girls and Goddesses and billed as a book that “considers the lives of women.” I had recently interviewed Vivian Gornick, whose new memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, weaves together snapshots of city life and of her relationship with her friend Leonard to create a nuanced meditation on friendship and feminism; as well as Kate Bolick, whose debut book, Spinster, approaches single adulthood through both personal and sociohistorical lenses.
Livingston’s work would appear to be similarly preoccupied: like The Odd Woman and The City, Queen of the Fall presents a collection of memories; like Spinster, it reaches back toward women in history; and like both Gornick and Bolick, Livingston considers the state of contemporary womanhood through a personal lens. In 20 connected essays (plus an introduction and a coda), chronologically arranged in three sections, she repeatedly returns to several formative experiences, interspersing them with tales of girls and women with whom she is personally and intellectually acquainted. Early on, the reader understands the author was shaped by a childhood in poverty; she is one of seven siblings, none of whom share a father. (Livingston’s first memoir, Ghostbread, focuses on her difficult childhood in western New York.) She writes effectively, and with wrenching precision, about her inability to have children herself.
Some of these essays are wildly successful. Take, for instance, “Mock Orange,” which beautifully reveals Livingston’s relationship with her niece, who gets pregnant at 16. In this complex piece, Livingston wields nuance to her advantage. We get a sense of how close she is to the girl, how in some ways her niece is the daughter Livingston wasn’t able to have. “She is mine, and I am hers,” Livingston writes. “Bound by the fact that her mother was pregnant at a time when I was pregnant myself. I lost the child I’d hoped for, but my sister’s baby was healthy and she named her for me.” We understand, too, her complex feelings about the pregnancy: on the one hand, for her niece, it’s potentially devastating; on the other, Livingston wonders if bearing a child isn’t the most meaningful experience the younger woman will ever have. The essay, which comes late in the book, gains meaning and power from previous reflections on her own infertility. For instance, in “Sybil” — which appears at the end of the book’s second section — she relates her experience with an invasive fertility treatment, her complicated feelings about motherhood, and her decision, finally, to stop trying. “There was the shock of the body not doing what I’d expected,” she writes. “Failing at what even a twelve-year-old could master.” Now, in “Mock Orange,” we encounter one of those for whom pregnancy comes all too easily.
Livingston, who has worked as a middle school counselor, successfully mines that experience too. In “One for Sorrow,” which is, no doubt, informed by previous writing about her own past, she is able to empathize and identify with the harsh reality of growing up poor, as well as the spirit and resilience of her female students:
So many hard-luck cases. So many mommas with bad boyfriends, so many daddies in jail. And yet in a school building with over a thousand children, most of them were like New Year’s Day. Open, curious, seeking out sun.
Despite this hope, tragedy sometimes wins: years later, Livingston discovers that Halladay, one of the girls she focuses on in the piece, was shot by her own father. And in “Something Like Joy,” she relates a devastating conversation with a stranger in a Laundromat. “No kids?” the woman asks. Livingston tells her no. “You never wanted any?” Livingston asks if she really wants to know, and the woman says yes.
“I never could,” I say. I feel something then, something with force enough to cause tears in the Laundromat but with muscle enough to stop them at the root. No children. Never could. The fact of it still so strange. Something’s moving in me, and she’s watching it closely [… but] I say it clean and cool, as if I’m ordering a Diet Dr Pepper from the counter next door. “I tried and couldn’t, then the marriage ended and now I’m older, married again and children wouldn’t fit.”
These three essays, all of which appear in the book’s third and final section (though not in this order), are strong and moving pieces of work. But others, particularly those that come early on, are less affecting. The narrative voice is not as reliable or assured, and at times disparate threads are not successfully interwoven. In “The Lady with the Alligator Purse,” for example, Livingston presents her interest in Susan B. Anthony via a lunchtime discussion with a new friend; memories of not playing Susan B. Anthony in a fourth-grade play; memories of singing the childhood rhyme “The Lady with the Alligator Purse,” to later discover that lady was none other than Anthony; bits of Anthony’s biography; musings about vegetables and pleasure; and a rumination on whether a Farrah Fawcett coin would’ve been more popular than Susan B. Anthony’s was. It’s a lot, and it might have worked, but by the end, I still wondered: what was it about Susan B. Anthony that so captivated the author? Susan B. Anthony all by herself can neither carry an essay, nor hold all these threads together; we need a reason to care.
Part of the problem is the prose itself. At times, the language is insanely and beautifully lyrical. Consider, for instance, these lines: “A body becomes what it holds. When it carries a baby the body becomes a mother. When it clings to desire the body makes itself into a tooth.” Or this description of Livingston’s efforts to get pregnant:
I made the ceiling into a projector, saying no thank you when Paul asked if I wanted company while counting down the minutes. I told myself I was being kind when I said no, freeing him when he wanted to go, but the truth is that I was selfish in my grief but also in my hope, keeping for myself the expanse of white paint while holding my body in an upside-down pirouette.
At other times, however, the apparent poetry feels discursive and indirect. The necessary work needed to decipher its meaning is frustrating rather than rewarding. Sometimes it’s the syntax alone that confounds. One essay begins, “She was a neighbor in Tucson, back when my in-laws lived there with their children, including my new husband when he was a boy.” Confusing!
On a broader level, the book might have been driven by a clearer sense of purpose. For one thing, it is a collection of personal essays, and should not be presented as a memoir. (I probably shouldn’t fault Livingston for that — these labels usually have more to do with the publisher — although in an interview about her first book, Livingston did say, “due to some strange impediment, I write prose in short blurbs.” I wonder: does she want to write a more conventional memoir, yet find herself unable to do so?) More important, the essays themselves might have better cohered into a fully realized whole, a book with a clear theme and reason for being. The meditations on poverty, motherhood, and infertility are by far the most compelling; why not focus exclusively on these themes and save the others for another day? In the end, the personal stories, nuanced and poetic as they are, aren’t enough to hold the reader — she’s left wanting more.
But what? In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, an invaluable handbook for personal writing, Gornick advocates the creation of a strong, clear narrative persona. This “unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader,” Gornick writes. When I finished Queen of the Fall, I found myself comparing it again to Gornick’s new book and Kate Bolick’s, too. In both cases, that narrator is well-crafted, and this sense of “detached empathy” has been achieved. It occurs to me there is something to the fact that the three strongest essays in Queen of the Fall come toward the end of the book. By that time, I had lived with Livingston long enough to have formed some conclusions about the narrator on my own. Ideally, however, a nonfiction writer makes herself known to the reader from the very beginning. While Livingston presents her experiences, circumstances, and interests with nuance and poetic detail, I finished the book still unsure about who she — the narrator — really is.