The book opens in mid-emergency. At 48, Ahern is holding a business meeting in her home on Washington’s Vashon Island in the Puget Sound when she realizes she can’t feel the left side of her face. After a multipart journey, including a car, an ambulance and a ferry, she’s admitted to the hospital, where she learns she has experienced a transient ischemic attack — a mini-stroke. The blood clot that caused it will break up on its own, evidently with no permanent damage. But other effects will linger.
Her doctor observes, “We know that the tangible test results show that you’re healthy. But what are the intangibles? Emotional stress on the body can cause physical damage. Stress can kill us. So what are the forces that have been causing you to lose sleep? . . . Where in your life do you not feel good enough?”
The word enough becomes a sort of totem — both a state of being and a demand — as Ahern examines the ways she must navigate emotional obstacles, fruitless pursuits and discontent to find real freedom. One of the entry points on this journey is through taking stock of her body. Moving from hair to toes, she speaks in “girl code” — the overly critical self-talk that “has been written into us since birth” — to ruthlessly catalogue any imagined flaws, from home perms to “peasant feet.”
“Mostly, I wear men’s shoes,” she explains. “I never was very good at being a girl.”
Her critique doesn’t end with the body, though. We accompany young Shauna to school and see the struggle between her bookish intelligence and her desire to fit in — all while dealing with the cultural pressure on girls to be nice, small and docile. But wherever she turns, she encounters more disapproval, telling her that she’s too odd, too ambitious, too much.
Running like a dark melody through these pieces is Ahern’s relationship with her mother. There are intimations of restriction and confinement that gradually open to the revelation of her mother’s chronic and overwhelming fearfulness — and the ways young Shauna must contort and contain herself.
Some of the most heartbreaking episodes are when her mother’s phobias encircle the family, tightening and threatening to strangle the children. Shauna is questioned on a regular basis about dogs, strangers, window locks. She’s repeatedly told that she is her mother’s “safety person” — a role of trust and responsibility with chilling undertones.
Some of my favorite memoirs break down the divide between story and reader, creating a sense that, for a while, readers are living alongside the author. Such is the case with “Enough.” Ahern is vividly present on the page, and we are beside her, feeling her exultation as she tours Stanford University, imagining the brilliant future before her. And we feel her despair as her mother declares that she doesn’t like “this part of California,” effectively shutting down this opportunity. “Enough” draws readers close, demonstrating how Ahern’s story, with all its personal twists and turns, applies to a wide audience.
Ahern’s frank and engaging voice is a big part of her appeal. Founder of the Gluten-Free Girl website, she discovered she was gluten-intolerant years before the advent of gluten-free bakeries and cake mixes. Ahern is notable not only for her recipes but for her warm, distinctive personality and her snapshots of daily life at home. Her blog entries charmed a legion of readers.
“Enough” jumps behind the scenes, detailing the struggle that took Ahern from her early confinement to the creation of a bold new life. She and her husband, Dan, deal with alcoholism, the rise and fall of their finances, a child’s medical crisis; through it, Ahern forges a powerful sense of self. She learns to search, as Louise Erdrich puts it, for “the authentic,” the essential elements of a fully embraced life.
Ahern’s insights are a gift to readers as she outlines the steps that brought her closer to things that matter: writing, creativity, time with family and community, the cultivation of gratitude and spirituality — as well as all the ways these things are bound up in and amplified by great food. One of the big messages of the book is about the treasure of balance itself. Gradually, she comes to a richer sense of where and how life is best lived. In this way, she offers up the wisdom of contentment; the joy of embracing what is enough.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of “Birds of Paradise” and “Origin.” Her most recent book is the culinary memoir “Life Without a Recipe.”
Notes From a Woman Who Has Finally Found It
Sasquatch. 224 pp. $22.95