I just finished Catana Tully’s memoir Split at the Root: A Memoir of Love and Lost Identity. This book makes for fascinating reading, in part because Tully’s story is so unique. She was a Guatemalan child of African origin adopted (sort of) by a German family living in Guatemala. Raised to be a socially polished European woman, Tully belatedly desires to learn more about her origins. The book not only chronicles her search, but how she comes to terms with the loss of her birthright.
What I learned from this book: While the various cultures that Tully inhabited piqued my interest, what I learned for my writing was most valuable. This memoir does something rare: although the first half of the book is engaging and an excellent read, the second half gets even stronger.
Why do I say that is rare? Most memoirs, even those by the greats (Tobias Wolff, for example), tend to weaken in structure in the latter portion of the books. It’s very hard to pull a memoir to a close, and so often they don’t seem tightly structured, except (oftentimes) by chronology. What Tully does is structure the book so well that the book increases in suspense in the latter half. I could not put the book down once I got into that part of the book.
That doesn’t happen by accident, but by carefully planning the interactions of the various scenes. I suspect that in the first half, she “set up” all the “threads” so well that after a certain point, the reader is prepared to just follow the protagonist as she learns more and more.
Note: I love to read memoirs with good structure because (and I’ve said this before) structure is the most difficult part of memoir writing.
On Monday I posted a review of this book on the blog my daughter and I write about adoption.
For more from Catana Tully, you can read her book blog here.
17 responses to “Most Recently Read Memoir”
I like what you wrote about structure. So what is the problem with the second half of most memoirs? Do the protagonist’s widening interests make the story loose?
This makes me think that a lot of memoirs might really be inflated personal essays. Is that so? I have read a lot of those but not nearly as many memoirs.
WJ, I think it’s as Anneli (below) says, that it’s the last 1/3 of memoirs. I’m not sure exactly what causes this to happen in so many. I think in coming of age memoirs it tends to be because when the child becomes an adult, there is a tendency to “catch up” the reader a bit. Even if the protagonist has been a child and teen throughout, once the protagonist hits the adult world, it becomes awkward. Maybe it’s just an awkward place to leave someone? Inflated personal essays? I don’t think so. They are more like novels with reflection and the reflection is by both the protagonist and the writer as one character.
That’s so true about the structure. As I’ve mentioned before, I love reading memoirs, but often they seem to start out well structured and then they fizzle.
Fizzle, yes. It actually drives me crazy. Well, sort of crazy ;).
You’re so right about many stories flagging near the two-thirds mark. Good to hear this one doesn’t do that.
Two-thirds mark: exactly. Jeannie (WJ) above asks why, and I gave the best answer I could think of right now, but I am still not really sure why. Any ideas? Tully’s book, BTW, is really a page turner!
I’ll have to check it out.
Great review! I didn’t realize structure was difficult with memoirs.
Actually, I think it’s a problem in many fiction genres.
I’ve found it to be true in many otherwise wonderful memoirs. And structure is so hard in writing one!
Thanks, you inspired me to pick this up for my Nook. 🙂
Oh, I’m glad, Deborah. I think you will love it–I sure did!
Really intriguing analysis of the structure of the book Luanne… what you said made me realise why I always find the second half of David Copperfield less satisfying.than the first half…
I am so glad that you shared this, both with us and other adoptive parents, or adopted ‘children,’ too. I find that it is so important that my stepson and his wife, learned how to braid their daughter’s hair, using the African American straightening solutions and also, that they include in many of her reading materials, those of the race and culture of her root heritage. It is sad to learn how Native Americans were taken from their homes to go to a different culture, getting “a better life.” Also, other cultures get blended without letting their children learn during their formative years of where they came from… This story sounds very wonderful and the fact you endorse it, reviewing it so favorably, means a lot! Take care, Robin
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