“Pathology,” the first essay in this book, chronicles Olding’s difficult relationship with her pathologist father, an alcoholic given to mercurial moods. This essay is so raw and clear-eyed, and yet completely unself-pitying that it literally took my breath away.
Another of my favourites is “On Separation,” a tribute to Olding’s sister-in-law, Jennifer. Olding alternates between meditating on separation using the metaphor of separating eggs to make almond cake and recording Jennifer’s losing battle with breast cancer. Although this may sound like an odd juxtaposition, this essay is one of the most moving pieces in the book.
Olding also writes a series of essays about her infertility, her decision to adopt her Chinese daughter Maia and her struggles as the parent of an adopted child. Of these, my favourite is “Mama’s Voices,” a wrenching piece about parental absence, writing about one’s child and Lana Turner. It’s hard to explain the structure of this essay, which alternates between sections called “Play,” “Fast Forward,” “Stop,” “Rewind” and “Record”—and I’m finding it equally hard to put into words the admiration I feel for Olding for writing (and publishing) this piece. In it, she contemplates reading a piece about her daughter at a writer’s conference:
That piece is too long, too personal, too difficult to excerpt, too domestic, too dependent on all its parts for a true effect, I tell myself. What I mean is, that piece is too revealing, too raw. Or maybe it’s just too real. (p. 201)When she does workshop the piece, her classmates and instructors urge her to shelve her project and not write further about her daughter. All I can say is, thank you, Susan, for not listening to them.
One of my (minor) criticisms of this book is that I felt Olding overused the device of interweaving two or more elements in her essays. (Sometimes these elements are different narrative threads; at other times, she uses definitions or fictional passages.) It works brilliantly in many essays including the three I’ve already mentioned, but feels choppy and distancing in “How to Be a Volunteer,” for example (although maybe I liked this essay least of all because parts of it are written in the second person). I also don’t like the inclusion of fictional passages in a non-fiction book. Although Olding says in her notes at the end of the book that she trusts these passages will be identifiable from their context, I wasn’t sure they were fictional until I read her note.
I am in awe of writers like Mairs and Olding who transform the dross of everyday life into the gold of art—an alchemy I still aspire to. I highly recommend this book and hope Olding is working on her next one!
To read other reviews of this book, visit these blogs:
Rob McClennan’s Blog • The Owl’s Nest Blog
You can also read a review of this book at Quill & Quire.
Interviews with the author: Rob McClennan’s Blog • Writing. Life. (part I) • Writing. Life. (part 2)
Thank you to Freehand Books for sending me this book to review.
This is the first book I review for the Essay Reading Challenge.
*I’m sure there are others out there—I just haven’t come across them yet.