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Susanna Sonnenberg (Marion Ettlinger)
Susanna Sonnenberg (Marion Ettlinger)

Review: Memoir

Memoir about female relationships is poignant – sometimes Add to ...

  • Title She Matters
  • Author Susanna Sonnenberg
  • Genre memoir
  • Publisher Scribner
  • Pages 255
  • Price $24

We have, in 2013, very fine and well-written blogs. We have, in 2013 (as ever), very fine books. I don’t know if She Matters, Susanna Sonnenberg’s memoir, was once a collection of blog posts. Nor if what comes to us between hard covers began life as writing edited out of Sonnenberg’s first memoir, the well-received Her Last Death. In the reading, however, this second book feels like one or both of these.

As reader and/or reviewer, I’ve encountered a growing number of “blooks.” A written thing that feels repackaged as another thing is not new. It’s easy to enter Sonnenberg’s tale of surviving the monster-mother from Her Last Death, her first, well-received memoir about the dark side of an Auntie Mame-style glamorous, mannered eccentric. What becomes increasingly difficult is caring. Which is counterproductive for the author, because what this writer appears to need most is to have someone, anyone, everyone care.

Yes, there a number of strong – if bloggish – paragraphs: “I tried Abigail on like her pea coat, which I coveted. I pretended to be concerned with her concerns. I took note of her Clearasil, her boiled wool slippers … her square walk, a product of multiple sports. … my crush, fierce and devoted, was on her blond hair, carelessly flyaway on her Fair Isle sweater … she protected me, I decided, especially in the first days, when I was at a loss, lost.”

This recollection, about the 14-year-old author at boarding school, speaks to both need and control. I decide. I choose. I banish. These themes will circle round over and over throughout the book, like small plates at a sushi bar.

At 16, Sonnenberg begins a sexual relationship with a 34-year-old married English teacher (male), but her primary relationships are with women. Each new friend, from childhood to the present, is sought, admired, wanted and then dismissed – as the author feels dismissed by mother, sister, father. Each woman is given a soupçon of admired traits, but in all cases, at least temporarily, disappoints.

But there is something missing. Perhaps there’s a clue in what, again and again as I read, recalls a blog. What matters to strangers now includes posts from women in war-torn Iraq and Tahrir Square. I also delight in blogs about fashion, sex, child-rearing, food and books. But for all this highly-connective sharing, She Matters feels unconnected. Its putative chapters feel sudden.

There are threads of theme, particularly Sonnenberg’s move from the Northeast (New York, Massachusetts) to the Northwest (Montana, where she married, had two sons and still lives). Her sons are the only people for whom she sustains love, at least to the present. A once-beloved husband winds up described as a “doltish” presence, once loved, then hated (her word), and dismissed as yet another person grown with time into insufficiency.

The book’s most vibrant sections concern Sonnenberg’s bisexuality, which she fights, with mixed success. These passages contain the most joy and energy.

Most parents, even the ones with the best and most loving intentions (perhaps these more than others), will fail to be perfect, will sometimes emotionally injure their children. That said, Sonnenberg’s poor little rich girl’s pity party is sour and suffocating. At the final page of She Matters, I’m left wishing for a book that allows for the possibility of sustained and balanced sharing between women, a book less centred on failed rescue, without a constant accretion of delight followed by disappointment.

Ultimately, lacking much about the first book’s star, a primary-coloured villain mother – the wheel upon which Susanna Sonnenberg was broken – She Matters doesn’t much matter.

Gale Zoë Garnett is currently writing a novel centred on two different girls from two different worlds.

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