Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday Review: Claire Dederer's Poser

I realize that it may not be fair to begin a post about Claire Dederer's memoir Poser by talking about Elizabeth Gilbert, but so be it. That's what I'm going to do. And I'm not the first person to have done so. Janet Maslin, for one, talks about Eat, Pray, Love in her daily NY Times review of Poser, as do Judith Shulevitz and Emily Bazelon in their interesting conversation about Poser over at Slate. Poser has a prominent blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert on its back cover, and it is the only blurb on the home page of Dederer's website. (The short version--Gilbert loved the book.)

So, Gilbert. Last fall, I had a somewhat ridiculous conversation with friends in which one of them wondered aloud whether Eat, Pray, Love was the worst book ever written. I was incredulous. Because really, if you think Eat, Pray, Love is the worst book ever written, you haven't read nearly enough bad books. I am the first to admit, I liked Eat, Pray, Love, and I don't think it's a bad book at all. I read it soon after it was published; I bought it in hardcover, in fact. I was interested in the India section, of course, but I'd read Elizabeth Gilbert's work previously and knew she could write. Maybe I liked it because I read it before it became a cultural phenomenon, but mostly I liked it because Gilbert is a very good writer. I found her a witty and self-deprecating narrator, and what remains with me, four or five years later, are her meditations on what it means when you make choices that take you out of the mainstream. Gilbert may now be a married, world-famous gazillionaire, but she wasn't when she wrote this book. The crisis precipitating Gilbert's year-long journey was the breakup of her first marriage, in part because she didn't want children. Whatever you think of her pasta-eating in Italy, meditating in India and finding love in Bali, she remains a clear observer of her own life, and there are things to take from it. At least there were for me. Here is Gilbert thinking of the difference between her own life choices and her sister's.

Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword.’ On one side of that sword, she said, there lies convention and tradition and order, where ‘all is correct.’ But on the other side of that sword, if you’re crazy enough to cross it and choose a life that does not follow convention, ‘all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course.’ Her argument was that the crossing of the shadow of that sword may bring a far more interesting existence to a woman, but you can bet it will also be more perilous.

In Dederer's book, the person who chooses to cross the shadow of the sword is not Dederer--who is married and the mother of a baby daughter when the book opens--but her mother, who, at the age of 32, when Dederer was 6 and her brother 8, took up with a hippie named Larry . . . while continuing to remain married to Dederer's father. Dederer's mother moved in with Larry, mostly taking the kids with her, while simultaneously trying to pretend that nothing had really changed, as evidenced by the fact that the parents were still married. When the book opens, Dederer's brother Dave, now a doting father and husband himself, wants nothing more than for his parents to divorce already. "He sent middle-of-the-night e-mail pleas to my parents, on which he CC'ed me. . . . 'It's time for a divorce,' he would write. Or, 'My birthday is coming. For my gift I would like a divorce.'"

Poser is structured, as the subtitle indicates, around Dederer's study of yoga, which begins when she throws her back out when her daughter is a baby. That each chapter is named for a yoga pose and uses that pose as a means to explore her life could have been a gimmick, but in this book, it's not. And honestly, I don't have a problem with finding a structure on which to hang your memoir. Writing a memoir is a hard enough task--figuring out a way to tell the stories you want to tell is a challenge, and if yoga poses work as your unifying structure, that's fine with me.

Poser follows Dederer from yoga class to yoga class, and backwards and forwards in her own life. In response to both her own childhood and to the expectations of the liberal Seattle circles in which she travels, she decides that the way that she will approach motherhood is by being perfect. And not only perfect but also good. As you might imagine, this doesn't work all that well or make her particularly happy. It frays her marriage and leaves her constantly anxious. As Poser moves along, we see Dederer have a second child, move to Boulder and back to Washington state and go through multiple forms of yoga. What Dederer has in common with Elizabeth Gilbert is her self-deprecating sense of humor and her willingness not to let herself off the hook. She is good company, and it's hard not to root for her--not just in her attempts to do handstands and complicated yoga sequences--but in her life as a writer, mother and wife.

I am of Dederer's demographic (born a year earlier) but not a parent or a yoga doer, despite all the time I've spent in the land of yoga. Still, Dederer's voice is one that is familiar to me, and it's one I enjoyed spending time with. Judith Warner may gripe in the New York Times magazine about Poser being part of the "burgeoning literature of postboomer-female midlife crisis," but I think she's just being churlish. Sure, I'd be glad to read Dederer on any number of subjects, but in Poser, she does a fine job of turning her critic's eye on herself, and for me, that made for a very good read.

(For a good interview with Dederer, see this blog post. I knew I liked Dederer when she mentions E.F. Benson's Lucia books in Poser. I liked her even more when she said that Laurie Colwin was her favorite writer.)


siobhan said...

Lovely review. Since I agree with you about Eat Pray Love and about EF Benson, I will most definitely check out Poser. Thanks for the recommendation

Anjuli said...

good review!

BIKE LADY said...

I'd not yet heard of this book, Poser. But I, too, loved Gilbert's Eat, Love, Pray. I think I'll look for Poser. I just started taking yoga classes and think it would be interesting to see if I could relate to the author's way of telling her story. Plus, I love memoirs. If I ever write mine one day, it'll use my bike rides.