For many readers of the New Yorker, Ariel Levy first came into her own with the 2013 piece “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” a shocking remembrance of her miscarriage. It was also, more quietly, an essay about intimacy on the job, as a reporter. Her new memoir shapes itself around this subject.
It’s Levy’s voice in “The Rules Do Not Apply” that wins us over, at once commanding and vulnerable. “In the last few months,” Levy begins, “I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house.” She feels flattened by sorrow. And yet, she adds, “It’s all so over-the-top. Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy? Or is this just a weirdly grim sitcom?” Her tone achieves an astonishing balance: at once able to keep her losses in proportion and still angry, sorrowful, demolishing.
Growing up, Levy was “domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal, and, as an only child, often baffled by the mores of other kids.” She wanted to be an adventurer, and a writer: “That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses.”
She hit her big break as editorial assistant at New York magazine in 1996, writing about “a nightclub for obese women in Queens.” The women were glorious in their tight, sequined dresses, their bodies “unmistakable monuments of resistance.” “They said they were sick of being ashamed, sick of apologizing for taking up so much space.” Levy was, too.
Levy was a staff writer by 28, in a transformed world where anything seemed possible, from meaningful political change to minor conveniences. Same-sex marriage is legalized and she marries her longtime girlfriend, Lucy. FreshDirect is born and her groceries come bounding up the stairs of her walk-up. Any limits seem to be just a temporary stay on her ambitions. “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” Levy writes. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.” At 35, she goes to South Africa, reporting on the intersex runner Caster Semenya, “the most ambitious story of my career.” On that trip, Levy writes to an old lover and begins to set fire to her life.
With its hot pink cover, Levy’s memoir seems covertly retrogressive. On the subway with a book proclaiming, “We can’t have it all,” you feel like an enemy agent. Can’t we? And what “we” have you been included in?
This feeling is something of a trademark for Levy. Her first book, “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” on the trade-offs between empowerment and sexualization, leaves a similar sting in one’s mouth. In this memoir, too, one feels that the subtlety of Levy’s politics doesn’t achieve the subtlety of her prose, tending instead toward the polemical. Writing for New York and then the New Yorker, she follows women nudging the boundaries of womanhood: full-bodied clubgoers, roving bands of lesbian separatists, intersex athletes. Yet here she doubts that women of her generation, “given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism,” were left better off by the option. Levy may be the most retrogressive progressive writer we have.
And what a writer she is. Her memoir is all tough immediacy, every detail sharp as India ink, from the “leggy nasturtiums” in a yard to her first look at Lucy, the woman who will become her wife: “She had the radiant decency of a sunflower.” But she cheats on Lucy with an ex-girlfriend — now an ex-boyfriend — who suggests, dizzyingly, that she carry his eggs. Lucy begins drinking out of stress and fear. Levy gets pregnant with the help of a sperm donor. And then, as New Yorker readers know, she accepts an assignment in Mongolia.
“What did I believe?” Levy asks us. “That I could be gay and straight? That I could be married and unhindered? A wanderer and a mother?” There is an answer here that is affecting and true in its particulars (the story of a reporter dismantled by wanting and grief) and an answer that is false as a generalization (that women cannot have both a career and a family). The real answer lies somewhere in the rich middle ground that is ordinarily Levy’s province. One finishes the book thinking of Levy’s awe when she met Caster Semenya. “She didn’t look like a teenage girl, or a teenage boy,” Levy writes. “She looked like something else, something magnificent.”
Jamie Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator.
By Ariel Levy
Random House. 207 pp. $27