Monday, June 6, 2011

Review: Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide by Linda Gray Sexton

I’ve literally been agonizing over this review for months now; it’s time to put it out there, even though I still don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten it “right”...

Opening lines of the book:

“Sometimes, even my bones resonate with the melodies of my childhood.

Ebullience and depression; love and warmth; the frightening separations and the joyous, if fragile, reunions. This is how I come to remember, simply because the old rhythms will always reverberate, always remain.”

Why I read it:

Years ago, when I was in my teens and early twenties, I was obsessed with the lives of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, two of the earliest (and most famous) confessional poets. I read everything I could find about both of them, which in Anne Sexton’s case included her daughter Linda Gray Sexton’s first memoir Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton and at least two of her novels. So I was thrilled to be offered a review copy of Linda’s second memoir, Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide. (Some of you may also remember that I looked everywhere for this memoir at BEA least year.)

What it’s about:

As Linda says in the preface to Half in Love, her first memoir “focused on coming to terms with [her] mother’s life,” while in this book she comes to terms with her mother’s death—at the same time confronting her “own struggle with depression, bipolar illness, and [her] family’s history of successful suicides” (p. xii). As determined as Linda was not to subject her children to what she’d endured as a child—after repeated suicide attempts, Anne Sexton succeeded in taking her own life in 1974 when Linda was 21—when she reached the age her mother was when she died, Linda found herself sliding inexorably into a deep depression that led to her first suicide attempt in 1997. Half in Love is a frank and unflinching portrait of the next decade of Linda’s life as she deals with depression, nearly constant migraines, suicide attempts and cutting.

What worked:

One of the most important messages in this book is that the belief that love should be enough to overcome suicidal tendencies contributes to the passing on of a legacy of suicide: “This misperception traumatizes those who experience the loss of someone close (certain that if they had only been more worthy, their friend or family member would have loved them enough to bear the suffering), and it also becomes an obstacle for those who survive the attempt to end their own lives” (because they feel guilty and ashamed that they didn’t love their families enough not to try to commit suicide, which only adds to their suffering) (pp. 215-216). As Linda points out “it was not a question of pain versus love; in this equation the two different levels of sensation were never in competition because they were as different as a skateboard and a Mack truck” (p. 215). After reading Linda’s memoir, I almost feel like this should be obvious; yet the idea that suicidal people are selfish is widespread and deeply entrenched.

What didn’t work:

I’ve been having a hard time writing this review because much as I believe this memoir is important given how prevalent (and misunderstood) suicide is in North America,* I didn’t really like Linda’s writing style. The images she uses often fell flat or were jarring: suicide “came up from behind and took [her] in a bear hug” (p. 5); when she tries to kill herself for the first time, she “was ready to make music with the keyboard of [her] wrist” (p. 7); and when the police come to save her, they “came to [her] in a roll of thunder” (p. 9). And although she describes each cutting incident and suicide attempt in great detail, she doesn’t provide much insight into her healing process. Instead she writes vague things like: “My medications were in balance, my therapy was stellar, and my moods grew more and more stable” (p. 273).

Final thoughts:

As I was writing this review, I couldn’t help but think of a recent blog post by memoirist Dani Shapiro entitled “On Writing for the Right Reasons,” in which she quotes from an Ann Beattie short story about a writer: “He had tried to write for the wrong reason: to exorcise demons instead of trying to court them.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Linda is writing for the wrong reasons; however, I did get the impression that she is still exorcising her demons through her writing. This unfortunately left me feeling that I got too many details and not enough insight into her experience and recovery.

Thank you to Counterpoint Press for sending me this book for review.

*In the U.S., someone commits suicide every seventeen minutes, according to the statistics Linda provides at the end of her book.

Half in Love was on blog tour with TLC Book Tours in January and February. Visit these other blogs for reviews:

Savvy Verse & WitLife in ReviewRegular RuminationBook Club Classics!Necromancy Never PaysColloquiumRundpinneBoarding in My FortiesThe BookwormIn the Next RoomRed Headed Book ChildSuko’s Notebook

Other reviews: The Divining WandThe New York Times

Guest posts: ColloquiumShe Is Too Fond of BooksIn the Next Room

Author interview: Savvy Verse & Wit


  1. I didn't really like the passages you cited either, so this book may not be for me.

  2. I love your review style...I am currently trying to learn from other bloggers about how they review books and I am very excited to see your take...
    Thanks for being inspiring...

  3. Kathy, if you read any of the other reviews (which I'm sure you've already done!), you'll see that I'm very much in the minority in not loving this book!

    Thank you so much, Nay! I'm off to check out your blog!

  4. I'm glad you decided to "just do it" and put your thoughts out there! Thank you so much for being on the tour.

  5. I could see why this might be a difficult review to write. It makes me wonder if she would have gotten a book deal if her mother WASN'T Anne Sexton. The phrases you shared do sound a bit clunky and would be a distraction. Good job getting it done and out there. It is such a difficult topic to write about and to read about.

  6. Thanks, Lisa, and thank you for being so understanding about my very late review!

    Jenners, I do feel bad for wanting a more literary memoir out of someone who has gone through all that Linda has experienced. And it's not that I regret reading this book -- I do feel like I gained a better understanding of what it would be like to be that depressed and suicidal. But yeah, I can't wholeheartedly recommend this book.

  7. Great, honest review Avis. I think you managed to point out some of the weaknesses in the book while still appreciating what the author was trying to say.