Mary Laura Philpott begins her new collection of essays with two opposing scenes. In the first, she describes an incident from her childhood: While on a family vacation to the Gulf of Mexico at age 9, she was waist-deep in the water, busy creating a dance routine, unaware that she was wading through a school of stingrays, their barbed tails whipping around her ankles. Sheer luck kept her unharmed.
When we next see her, Philpott is in her mid-40s, at home one night with her husband and two children in Nashville, when she is awakened to a horrific pounding that sounds like someone trying to ram through the front door. It is her teenage son, in the throes of a violent seizure, which leads to a diagnosis of juvenile myoclonic epilepsy.
“Bomb Shelter: Love, Time, and other Explosives” is Philpott’s second book of essays. Her first, “I Miss You When I Blink,” was a nail-on-the-head collection of observations about the push and pull of adulthood, motherhood and the conflicting pressures of home and work. With “Bomb Shelter,” billed as a memoir in essays, Philpott brings us a beautifully wrought ode to life.
In opening the collection with these two episodes — a child’s ignorance of danger and a mother’s direct confrontation with it — Philpott lets us know that she wasn’t born to fret. She comes by it honestly, and with her son’s seizure she doubles down on worry. If not disaster-prone, exactly, she’s chronically disaster-adjacent.
The book’s through line — such as it is — acquaints us with those Philpott holds dear, often by way of their maladies: her daughter’s asthma; her husband’s autoimmune condition; her father’s cardiac disease. One of her dogs has an eating disorder, the other chronic pancreatitis. Philpott herself suffers from migraines; when she discovers at age 45 that she has high cholesterol, she puts herself on an eating regimen that involves dry Cheerios.
Most alarming, of course, is her son’s epilepsy. Philpott engages in brief — and useless — self-recrimination, wondering if she should have seen signs of her son’s condition years earlier. She anguishes over how she can possibly keep him safe.
Philpott brings her own special blend of dread and hope to this treatise on the fragility of life. And just as in “I Miss You When I Blink,” she infuses her writing with an abundance of insight.
For example, most anyone employed as a parent can relate to what Philpott has to say about the hugeness of that particular job. A stranger out walking his dog who happened to peer in the window of her house, she writes, “couldn’t know that I felt the universe had entrusted me with so much more than I could possibly keep safe.” Nor would he see the explosive vest she felt she was wearing. “Every joy, every loved one, every little thing I got attached to,” she writes, “each one was another stick of dynamite, strapped to the rest.” Been there, felt that.
Philpott wears her anxiety well. It makes her appealing, something of a role model for fretters. Her concerns about her son’s seizures do not dissipate, exactly, but she does manage to prepare her psyche for his imminent departure for college. So deep was the impact of her earlier anxiety on this reader that the temptation was to cry out, “No! Don’t! Did you forget about the danger? Are you crazy?” No, she’s simply human.
For good reason, Philpott has been compared to Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck and Anne Lamott. As the famous Ephron family saying goes, “Everything is copy.” And Philpott can spin copy from the stuff of life with the best of them, aiming her talent at a new generation of mid-lifers, who could use a book that speaks to them. And like her antecedents, Philpott possesses that rare ability to dole out prose that’s equal parts comedy and pathos, tragedy and celebration.
We who walk the earth believing that all our good fortune could spontaneously combust at any moment are precisely those who will find “Bomb Shelter” as endearing as it is readable. Which brings me to my favorite chapter, titled “Close Calls.” It takes place in an airport, that familiar locus of unmitigated dread. Will the flight be delayed because the pilot’s seat is broken? Canceled because the pilot’s seat can’t be fixed? Will a TSA agent take us down? Then there’s the turbulence app showing low-level wind shear. Can that be right? Without disclosing all that happens in this chapter, I’ll just say that Philpott is unable to get home to Nashville as planned. Who among us hasn’t panicked when we’re separated from those we love and can’t return to them exactly when we want to?
“I am obsessed with death because I am in love with life,” Philpott writes. “I’m sad because I’m so happy.” We hear you, Mary Laura. And know that your love affair with life, fraught as it is, is a precious gift to the world.
Love, Time, and Other Explosives
By Mary Laura Philpott
Atria. 288 pp. $27
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