I feel a little bothered–maybe even disturbed–about something I noticed in reading memoirs.
When I go to write memoir reviews, I tend to remember them by their schtick. You know: the memoir about the father with Alzheimer’s, the one about the college-age woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer, the girl from Texas with crazy gun-toting alcoholic parents, the woman who secretly taught women Western literature during the Iranian Revolution, the man who learned gambling as part of Chinese culture while still a child, the young woman who had sex with her father, the girl who slept with hundreds of men. You see what I mean?
This is all well and good. After all, I am writing about the girl who lived over a bomb shelter and in front of the city dump with the garbage man father.
But does it mean that all memoirs have to have schtick to make them memorable?
I eagerly raced through New York Times contributor Alyse Myers’ memoir who do you think you are?, thinking, “Wow, this is a well-written exploration of a sad and horrifying mother-daughter relationship.” It seemed as though Myers’ mother resented her daughter (more than Myers’ two sisters). The narrator is almost a Cinderella character, her mother a wicked and cruel mother.
Myers becomes independent at a young age in response to her relationship with her mother. She is driven and successful. Finally, she finds the perfect man to marry. She is nervous for him to meet her mother. When they do meet, her mother asks him what he sees in her daughter. Yet the man is charmed by Myers’ mother, and the mother even tries to impress a little by baking a cake–something she didn’t do for her daughter.
How does Myers go from being the abused outsider of her family to “being there” for her dying mother? To even wanting her future husband to meet her mother? The book shows the path. Excellent story.
But when I go to remember the story, it’s difficult. I have to reread the book. I don’t have that hook to grab onto and reel in the plot elements from my memory. And why? Because the book has no schtick. Sure, it’s about a horrible mother-daughter relationship and there is much to be learned from reading the book. But many memoirs showcase bad parent-child relationships. Many take place in the 1960s as this one does. In New York City, as this one does.
Does that mean the book’s weakness is that it doesn’t offer a memorable image?
As readers, sometimes we make fun of the schtick that memoirs are made of, but when it comes down to it, is that what makes them books that live on in our imaginations?