The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

I think that memoirs are strange animals to review. First, that although the normal rules of what constitutes good writing still apply, i.e., pacing, characterization, and voice, both the characterization and voice in the memoir are personal, there is no distance. As a reader of memoir, I find myself either liking or disliking the author because so much of them is on the page. I can dislike a character in a novel and still appreciate the characterization. But a memoir is the ultimate first-person POV. There is no distance. There is some craft because a badly written memoir is a badly written book just like all other badly written books, and a well-written memoir has all the elements that constitutes a good read. So I preface this review by saying that I found this book to be well written, pacing excellent, language intelligent, etc. I also found the author to be selfish and self-absorbed, and that the basic premise of this book--some sort of wake-up call for the 30-something feminist--massively flawed.

Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, which just debuted to lots of accolades, deals with her recent miscarriage and disintegration of her marriage. I would like to offer my personal condolences to Ms. Levy regarding the loss of her son. For me, the loss of a child is—hands down—the worst thing a parent can experience. It’s an event that changes your DNA forever.

Now that we have established that I am profoundly sad at the loss of her child and that I found this book well written, I didn’t get the point, which is that women can’t have it all. She tears through her career with the determination of a pit bull, has success, finds love, marries, and then it all goes to shit. And the underlying subtext is, “I tried to have it all just like they said I could and that I deserved everything because I worked so hard, and now I find that this is not true!” It’s not exactly a temper tantrum on the page, but it’s close.

I believe that the strength of a memoir is not the “I,” but the “we” that surrounds it and gives some context and insight into the “I.” Ms. Levy’s memoir is a committed testament to the “I.” I want. I deserve. I write. I travel. I get bored with my wife and have an affair. She spends pages detailing her own betrayal and even describes it as an addiction, as if her affair is more or less the same as her wife’s alcoholism and therefore she gets a weak pass, while spending basically a paragraph describing their reconciliation with little mention of how her wife deals with this massive betrayal. The weakness in this book is that there is only the sense of I.

There are some lovely bits about her correspondence with her doctor who becomes a good friend, but to couch this in the language of a feminist manifesto gone awry isn’t, in my opinion, either fair or even relevant. I didn’t find this book an ode to the 30-something feminist. There’s more than just a whiff of free-floating narcissism that is the engine here as opposed to feminist drive. She marries, finds her wife boring after a few years, cheats on her wife, repeatedly, and is so wrapped up in her career that she doesn’t notice or almost willfully chooses not to notice that her wife is becoming a hardcore alcoholic. And you kinda get how her partner could slide into alcoholism without too much of a whimper because the author just isn’t there a whole lot, either emotionally or physically. She loses her child, and there is little reference to the grief her wife must be experiencing as well. It is all Levy's grief that we hear about. It's "my" son, not "our" son.

That is the key problem in reviewing this book. If you don’t have the miscarriage, you have the sad but mundane story of a marriage that falls apart because someone drinks too much and someone is a workaholic and someone cheats and when these things happen, marriages usually break up. The pregnancy and miscarriage carry this book much farther than it deserves to go. In a way, the miscarriage was a bit of a cheap shot. I hate to type that, but I think that it absolves her of real criticism of this memoir. You can say, well, that’s the reason she wrote it, and I say, okay, but tragedy doesn't necessarily make a book. It can, of course, but not always. At the age of thirty-eight, she had the chutzpah to write a memoir and because she's a decent writer, she knew that this book needed to be tied to a much larger issue. Women all over the world have miscarriages, and the magnitude of tragedy is the same. Her effort to make it more than just a book about a personal tragedy fell short, quite short, for me.

I didn’t feel a particular kinship with Ms. Levy, although I would certainly label myself a feminist. I kept searching for what the reviewers meant by this being a book about feminism and loss. I’m like, what the hell? What feminism? Perhaps I should read her other book. Yes, this book is certainly about loss and grief, but a commentary on today's feminism? Give me a break. Cheating on your wife by having sex with a former ex who’s transitioned or running around the world writing stories or hanging out in gay bars doesn’t strike me as particularly feminist. It strikes me as, well, sort of normal if skanky. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and while I suspect that a lot of this was written to shock, I was like, uh, so? None of this is feminist in nature. It’s about a career, a relationship, a marriage, and a divorce, you know, the normal shit that happens to friends and family and moves us to the next birthday.

The bottom line is that being a feminist doesn’t give anyone license to be an asshole. Feminism is not code for narcissism. This author destroys her wife’s trust and expects everything to be fine. She suspects her wife is still drinking and willfully ignores the signs because she wants a baby, even though the marriage is shaky at best. She exploits her wife’s alcoholism and the failure of her marriage by writing a book about it. I fail to see how this is a commentary on modern feminism.

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LINKS

Debris and Detritus (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Pen and Prejudice (available in trade paperback and ebook formats).

Roux Morgue (available in hard cover, trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Beat Until Stiff (available in trade paperback, audio, and ebook formats)

Poisoned Pen Press

Mystery Writers of America

Sisters in Crime Northern California Chapter

Independent American Booksellers Association

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