Last year I took a memoir class at The Grotto in San Francisco. As we went around the table to introduce ourselves and our projects, two things became clear. First, some in the group had writing chops—published books, a background in journalism, degrees—while others were newcomers. Second, some had stories—hijackings, wheelings and dealings in war-torn countries—while others had, at best, wacky childhoods or a vague intent to explore some semi-fertile period of our lives. Those with stories were not necessarily the writers, and the writers, for all their fine phrases and vivid imagery, sometimes lacked that key ingredient—story.
Victoria Fedden has a story. Nine months pregnant and living with her mother and step-father while her house is being remodeled, she answers the door in a t-shirt early one morning to find the feds waving warrants and flashing badges. The agents force the cell phone from Victoria’s hands. Exiled to an expensive couch where her parents once hosted a porn shoot, she watches officials in cargo pants ransack the house and leave with her mother in tow. It’s a hook, it’s a story, and it showcases Fedden’s talents: humor and voice.
The woman with the mullet milled around by the front door, lording over the row of confiscated cell phones lined up on the key table, lest I try to grab one and check my Facebook or something nefarious like that. I almost laughed, imagining what my status update might read.
“Victoria Fedden is: being detained by the DEA.”
In the early pages, I laughed aloud, stretched out on a lounge chair beside a pool where my children were swimming—after all, with its blue sky and palm tree cover, this book is the very definition of summer reading. Here Victoria, under duress after her mother’s arrest, goes to a Reiki practitioner:
She whispered something about chakras and moved her fingers to my third eye and then my throat, working her way slowly down my body, and the whole thing would have been quite pleasant and relaxing if my entire life wasn’t going to pieces and Sia’s goddamned dog wasn’t licking his balls.
The trouble with story events in life is that they lack the taut through-line of an invented story. Michelangelo is said to have claimed that creating the David was easy—he had only to find the block of marble in which the statue lived and then chip away everything that wasn’t the David. The challenge of memoir is carving away everything that’s not the story.
In a story, an inciting incident like the dramatic arrest of your parents while you are enormously pregnant leads, in a chain of cause and effect, to the next action or event: the narrator might go into labor or be forced to fight for her mother’s release or be left to struggle on her own in dramatically reduced circumstances. But this is real life with real legal struggles, and so what happens instead is that Fedden’s mother is released, and the long, slow process of waiting for charges begins, and often slips out of sight, while Fedden’s remodel finishes and she moves in next door to Ashley.
Victoria calls Ashley her sister, but technically Ashley is her aunt. This is also a memoir about complicated families. The most moving parts of the book brush against the backstory of Fedden’s relationship with her mother, Cecily. When her parents divorced, Victoria’s religious father and his mother got custody of her. Cecily fought to get Victoria back, and in despair she turned to drugs and dealing, eventually teaming up with new love Joel to win back now nine-year-old Victoria. When Victoria left to go live with her mother, her father cut her off. She has never seen him again, nor has she met her five half-siblings on his side. In the course of the book, Victoria reconnects with the siblings, returning for stretches to her hometown of Milford, Delaware to hide out from Cecily’s legal troubles and the stresses of early parenting. Ashley is Cecily’s half-sister, nine years younger than Victoria.
After regaining custody of Victoria, Cecily ends up raising her alongside Ashley, and there are suggestions of a close-knit family—big holiday dinners with the girls, their husbands, and eventually their children, along with her parents’ “flamboyant entourage… of sex workers and ex-personal trainers turned penny-stick promoters.”
Story. Check. Characters. Check. But mostly Fedden gives us summary and self-analysis sprinkled with long exchanges of dialog in which the characters exchange summary and self-analysis. Events are announced in dialog and then picked apart at the most obvious level:
“I’m going to Delaware in two weeks, just me and Em, since Ben has to work,” I announced.
“Nice! Did you tell her, though? Did she freak?”
“She wasn’t thrilled,” I said…
“Why does she do that? Why does she always get mad when we want to travel?” Ashley asked.
“I think she feels like she might lose us if we go away, or something might happen to us,” I said, but I didn’t really know. “Maybe she misses us. She seems to feel threatened by my going to Delaware for some reason.”
“Because she hates it there, maybe, and she can’t imagine someone feeling something she doesn’t?”
Fedden is a blogger, named 2011’s Best Humor Blog by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, and this book is easiest to absorb the way one does a blog, where chatty intimacy and personal observations feel substantive as they do not in a book. We drop in and out of Fedden’s struggles with post-partum depression and parenting, her budding engagement with yoga, and her belated coming-of-age as a daughter facing her parents’ imprisonment and learning to stand on her own.
Kaui Hart Hemmings’ How to Party with an Infant is a novel, not a memoir, though there is plenty of fodder for the kind of biographical questions Terri Gross likes to ask fiction authors. Hemmings once published an essay, “Author’s Questionnaire,” whose form was drawn from the series of questions a publishers asks an author in preparing to market her book.
What inspired you to write this book?
Hemmings answers the questions personally and at length:
All the stupid shit affluent mothers do and say. I feel mean because in the title story, ‘How to Party with an Infant,’ I essentially use direct quotes from emails and conversations I’ve had with other mothers for the purpose of making them appear ridiculous.
The book she is discussing is a predecessor of this new novel with the same title. From this essay, we also learn that, like the novel’s mommy protagonist, Hemmings was “knocked up” (her phrase), though unlike the novel’s characters, Hemmings and her then boyfriend married each other.
How to Party with an Infant borrows or creates another questionnaire as its form—the submission requirements for the “San Francisco Mother’s Club Cookbook Competition.” As she did in her “Author’s Questionnaire” responses, Hemmings allows her narrator, Mele, to answer at length, to digress, divulge, confess, to describe scenes and offer extensive backstory. Mele tackles this cookbook contest in the weeks leading up to the wedding of her child’s father—to someone else—which provides a certain “ticking time bomb” for the story. Three years earlier, when Mele announced to her lover that she was pregnant, she had reason to believe they’d achieved a certain level of commitment and intimacy:
[W]e had talked about what we’d name our children. We had long post-coital conversations about dream houses and vacations. We had gone snowboarding with each other. I knew he had a special uncle who died when he was twelve. We had reached the gas-passing phase with one another. We were there.
In the face of her “radiating hope and confidence and pure love,” he announced that he was “kind of already engaged.”
Now a single mother in San Francisco, Mele has struggled to find a playgroup, “like Goldilocks, trying out moms—some were too DIY, others do-nothing-yourselves, total outsourcers.” At last she finds a group that fits her, and they gather daily in the Panhandle.
The novel includes scenes from the lives of each of these four playgroup parents. It is the narrator’s superpower to be able to take others’ stories and bring them to life on the page, “something Mele has always had a knack for: drawing people out, unraveling them.” But it’s more than that—Mele is a writer, “listening to his story while imagining and inventing details. It’s exhausting sometimes—I feel like a medium.” It’s a funny conceit to have a character remark on this particular skill, and perhaps Hemmings felt it necessary in order to embed these alternate points of view into a first person narrative. Some of my favorite books use this elasticity of perspective without assigning the narrator a superpower. I call this point of view “first person omniscient,” exemplified in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and Euphoria by Lila King.
In any case, it’s a relief to be in the hands of a writer. Not a blogger, not a storyteller, but someone who can bring the reader into the moment-by-moment sensations of an experience, an interaction. Someone who homes in on conflict and character and brings them richly to the page via details, actions, gestures and descriptions that create in the reader a sense of living the story.
Here, Mele imagines her friend Henry’s story as he remembers first stumbling upon his wife and her lover:
At one point in the evening Henry lost sight of them and he went on a search. He found them in a hallway. She and the man were standing close together. They both looked drunk and almost angry. During the car ride home, he said, ‘What was that all about?’ but she just said, ‘What was what all about? What are you talking about?’
Henry is the sole man in the close-knit parent group at the heart of the book, and he evolves to be the love interest as well, so it’s lucky his story is about his wife’s lengthy betrayal of him.
It’s also lucky for us that Mele has the superpower that Fedden has only unevenly mastered—it makes for an absorbing book. In fact, it creates story. Mele works through her confusion about how to handle her ex’s upcoming wedding, to which she and her daughter have been invited. In the end, she triumphs.
Both of these books are funny, and both take down various mothers whose goals and foibles intimidate and annoy the authors. Like Mele, Fedden tries to find her team as a parent.
Finding other mom friends had been hard. We’d attempted a couple of playdates with parents we met at the park or the library, but each of them ended in disaster…. One of the moms was interested in nothing except bragging about what a genius her kid was, and it made me want to stab her in the face with a fork.
If you happen to be a mother who limits your children’s screen time or tries to feed them organic food, the entertainment value of these sections in both books may have a double edge.
Comparing any two books is no more fair than comparing any two mothers. But, as Hemmings and Fedden show us, it makes for excellent sport.