The essays in For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs explore the many successes and admirable qualities of their author.
Kathleen Rooney is admirable for what she has accomplished at such an early age. She is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a published author, a Senate aide, and a professor. Her most recent book, For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs, is a collection of essays that deals with that epoch of time recently coined the “quarter-life crisis”—that painful period in your late twenties when you are still bumping up against the world and coming away bruised.
In For You, Rooney touches on a variety of subjects under the quarter-life umbrella—from the notorious Brazilian wax process to new-wave feminism; from what it’s like to work for a senator to what it’s like being a professor in her twenties. All the while, she proves she is well read and still questioning the world around her.
The most successful essay in the collection is perhaps the final one, “However Measured or Far Away”—an essay about her cousin, Jennifer, who is about to become a nun. Rooney’s writing shines as she explores an interesting figure in her life, a young woman with a doctorate in engineering who has decided to enter the convent. “Jennifer is so practical, yet at the same time so mystical with her migraines and her early bedtimes and her oft-uttered blessings, so delicate in body yet so strong in conviction,” writes Rooney. “She makes me afraid for her life, sometimes, because of the intensity of her belief.” This essay is a pleasure to read. It looks outward and then it looks inward, exploring Rooney’s feelings of jealousy for her near-nun-cousin; exploring, too, a competitive spirit, friendship, kinship, faith, and filial bonds.
If only Rooney’s editor would have told her, “This last essay, this is wonderful, start here, put the other essays away for a while…” Because adding to the pleasures of reading “However Measured” is the diversion it gives readers from the narrow road traveled by many of the other pieces, which linger in trite, almost adolescent, experiences, and vanity.
Vanity is, in fact, one of the book’s central characters, as well as its cardinal sin. In “Fast Anchor’d, Eternal, O Love!,” Rooney discusses the period when she worked for the senior senator from Illinois—who goes unnamed—and under whom she directed interns and tried to teach them how to write. The essay is written in a crushy, precocious-schoolgirl voice, with an irritating third-person narration running through the whole thing. “She was a nostalgic dresser. Her clothes expressed emotions,” Rooney says of herself, before going on to describe her “gauzy” scarf and “dark hair swept up and back.”
Apparently Rooney wasn’t the only one noting her appearance. “How do you manage to look so good all the time, especially on what I pay you?” says the senator’s Chief of Staff. Or: “A-plus. You look like a million bucks.” When she wears an outfit she’s had since high school, he says: “Can you believe that she’s the same size she was when she was sixteen?” Repeated frequently, this self-congratulation comes of as a tic, making the essay difficult to plow through. [Editor’s note: Senator Dick Durbin’s office contacted our reviewer to attribute these remarks to the Illinois State Director, not the senator’s Chief of Staff. Kathleen Rooney writes that, “the senator… never conducted himself in any but an appropriate fashion.”]
In “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” Rooney writes about her job as a professor at a small religious college. She mentions that she is a “professor” so many times one loses count. This time it is not a senator who is taken with her, but a student named Charlie, with a crush. Rooney takes this very seriously—in fact she revels in it, and gets drunk with her students at a student party. “All the girls in class were crazy for Charlie, but Kathy had suspected and recently confirmed that Charlie was crazy only for Kathy,” Rooney writes, again, in third person, while her husband buzzes around the party in the background. “You look fabulous in that,” said Kirsten, snapping her photograph. “You look fabulous in anything,” said Joslin. Kirsten and Joslin are her students as well—though they don’t have crushes, Rooney again finds it important to mention people’s impressions of her appearance, though here at least she gestures to modesty: “Kathy wanted to correct them,” she says, “wondered how such smart young people could be so wrong.”
It is perhaps this obsession with surface and self that does not let Rooney’s narratives progress, this constant sinking into the superficial that does not allow her to move deeper. In addition, Rooney seems always be avoiding one food or another, always dancing around eating—a possible disorder that goes begging to be touched upon.
Rooney’s most successful writing comes when she looks outside herself, sharply, at the world, as in the essay about her cousin, or the moments when she talks about her relationship with her sister. For You serves to remind readers that it can be dangerous to be published in your twenties, when you are still finding yourself and your voice. One hopes Rooney survives all her early success and keeps writing essays like “However Measured or Far Away.”