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the daily review, tuesday, jan. 12

Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Reviewed here: Traveling With Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor; Eating Pomegranates: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters and the Breast Cancer Gene, by Sarah Gabriel

In the recent past, a proliferation of memoirs have been published with the woman reader in mind. The female in the memoir is usually privileged enough to venture away to consider her crisis, often minor, aloud in sunnier climes, while the reader - I gather from the extraordinary sales value such books generate - finds meaning in staying at home, doing the vacuuming and drawing strength from our absent, now suntanned Moaning Minnie.

We've had the "woe is me, alas" memoir, the "feeling orgasmic over the touch of linen on my toes alone in bed in Italy on Tuesday" memoir, the "Thank Christ she wasn't my mother" memoir, the "I got rid of my husband and everything makes sense" memoir, and now, in the case of Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, we arrive at the "nothing in particular, on me holidays with me mum, we might be having a crisis but you'll need a magnifying glass to find it" memoir. Publishers trot this tripe out because of the chance it might be lifted by the winds of marketing and carried to every middle-class dinner table.

Historically, you could garner the kinds of insights in these books if you stood patiently at the bus stop; today in the increasingly isolated spheres we inhabit, such realizations now share the shelves with philosophy and Beowulf. This is not to dismiss or disregard women's' experience; rather, to suggest we should not accept such a weak strain of writing to define it.

Here it is delivered in its weakest and most pointless form: telepathic mother-daughter navel-gazing. Sue (Monk Kidd), 50, bestselling author ( The Secret Life of Bees) - with understanding hubby, prone to urges to sell her house, relocate to a salt marsh and become impatient while her house on the edge of a salt marsh is being built - is centrally concerned about her face sagging at 50 and losing her "connection" and her struggle for intimacy with her daughter. Pass the keyboard to Ann (Kidd Taylor), twentyish mopey daughter of Sue, nursing a broken heart because a boyfriend once dumped her and she did not get accepted to grad school to study ancient Greek history.

Some readers may consider this a blessing, since Ann's rendition of Greece in her travel writing verges on the romanticized banal. Sue and Ann get to publish a memoir basically because Sue is a bestselling novelist. Ann, wary about treading on mom's patch, was originally writing her own travel book but decided that, since they'd travelled together, mom should join in, perhaps because it was also an assured way of getting published.

There are constant low-watt light bulbs dinging on for these two perfectly pleasant, but self-consumed, women, such as Sue in the midst of contemplating a portrait of the Virgin Mary and ... ding! I want to write fiction! Really, it's not unusual to have similar thoughts while shopping for a hamster; must one really transport oneself to the far regions of the land that gave us Euripides to enable such revelation?

Or ding! Ann on seeing a gold statue of Joan of Arc on her horse "not far from where she was wounded in an attack." I myself once took horse-riding lessons on an unpredictable steed called Harry. You get the picture. The Bayeux Tapestry via Joan Didion this is not; it's moaning and meandering, more vividly served daily by strangers in the blogosphere.

The aforementioned telepathic naval-gazing is the irritating format and style in which the memoir is delivered. Mother looks across room at daughter and wonders what she's thinking. Is she suffering? Next chapter, daughter tells us what she's thinking and then wonders about mum. Then the two of them wonder about Persephone, the Greek goddess: Ann's besotted with Athena and Sue registers excitement about pomegranates, because when your work is full of holes a reference to a Greek goddess or fruit obliges.

Eventually, the duo return to South Carolina, with Mom groping to unpack boxes and Ann, beset by fairly average melancholy that she keeps insisting is depression, says a few warm things about her new hubby-to-be Scott, such as Mum, we're getting married.

These writers find significance in virtually anything to create a puddle to gaze in: Sue trips and falls at one point, and by the time she's back on her feet she's all over "symbolic stumbling blocks," pounding herself with questions. Ann, back on the meander with mom again in France, practises writing her married name and reflects on the fact she won't be a mademoiselle for long.

Stand at the bus stop instead.

In contrast to Sue Monk Kidd's reluctance to talk about her hypertension, in Eating Pomegranates: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters and the Breast Cancer Gene, Sarah Gabriel, endowed thankfully with richer prose, has an immediate threat that she's very much prepared to discuss: gene mutation BRCA1 (a rare mutation, only one other family in the international breast cancer database with it), which means she has an 85-per-cent chance of developing the cancer that killed her mother at 42. It is a circular story of a motherless daughter facing an identical fate at an almost identical age, with her two toddler daughters looking up from her ankles.

Her story is not simply about cancer, it's more about the legacy of genetics and unwinding the grief that's chased her through her life. Gabriel has spent the past 18 months "attempting to outwit death stalking in the form of an inherited predisposition to cellular malfunction." Her world further implodes when she's vaulted from attending cutting-edge genetics appointments to the news she's already got cancer. Breast cancer.

Shock is another country, Gabriel tells us, and bravely takes us through the sluice gates with her. The beauty of this bold recording is in its nearly incidental but potent observations that further our emotional understanding of cancer and what it does and destroys in those we love. We learn how maddening our reactions can be for such sufferers. I was struck by the extraordinary loneliness of Gabriel's experience, an isolation that is the culmination of losing a parent, young, and facing death, young, without the person who gave birth to you beside you.

Also, she captures the absurd demands on someone, in this case, a mother - it could just as easily be a father - who holds so much of the burden of daily family life on her shoulders that the lid on her coffin could be closing and someone would shout in Where the hell is the tea towel and why isn't there any pasta in the tin? Her father, when her sensible husband drives her from the hospital to recover in a hotel, demands she return home to her children even though she's clearly not physically capable. This leads to a rather moving faceoff with dad in the car.

Gabriel constructs her memoir around her treatment. An interesting parallel emerges of her constructing with her pen while the surgeons are reconstructing with the scalpel. She's a rigorous excavator of the moment, maintaining sufficient distance and detail to evoke it so we are affected by it rather than drowned in it. Her memoir, with its combination of medical anthropology and history, hints at wider possibilities for memoir as a form.

This week's Daily Reviews

  • Monday: Sunset Oasis, by Bahaa Taher
  • Today: Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor; Eating Pomegranates: A Memoir of Mothers, Daughters, and the Breast Cancer Gene, by Sarah Gabriel
  • Wednesday: Life Stories: Original Works by Russian Writers, edited by Paul E. Richardson; Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia, edited by Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker
  • Thursday: Science, Sense and Nonsense: 61 Nourishing, Healthy, Bunk-free Commentaries on the Chemistry that Affects Us All, by Dr. Joe Schwarcz
  • Friday: An audiobook roundup

Along with the written construction and her physical reconstruction, there's another public construct occurring all around Gabriel: that of others deciding what her experience must be. The territory of other people's fear manifests in manic outbursts of the "It's awful. Awful!" type heaving in the schoolyard and being silently watched and guessed about. Gabriel, though she chose to write under a pseudonym, likely to protect her children, has not been selective about making herself sympathetic, and this gives us a whole person to engage with and facilitates an extra degree of honesty. It's her grabbing at the exile of desperate domestic moments that everyone experiences but assumes are only theirs that offers a window into how this disease is wrecking the foundations of daily, ordinary lives here and everywhere.

The treatment of cancer by Britain's National Health Service, depicted in this memoir, is not a universal experience. It depends on the country you live in and your ability to pay. Thus Gabriel is never paying large sums for prescriptions, nor does she explain how she keeps the wolf from the door during treatment. So is this memoir relevant to Canadians?

Along with allusions to pomegranates in their titles, the two memoirs share one other thing in common: All three writers display little awareness of their privilege. Sarah Gabriel whips off to Germany to seek a second opinion on her surgery, interrogates her doctors (privately making assumptions about them and their lives) at length about her treatment. Monk Kidd observes her daughter's melancholy in a hotel in Greece rather than the confines of a psychiatric ward.

At least Gabriel notices and occasionally records the predicaments of the women suffering around her, while the other two only seem to have aural capacity for the most minor gurgles of their own stomachs.

Anakana Schofield is a writer living in Vancouver.