On first reading of Meredith Maran’s new memoir, I silently implored her to buck up and stop the waterworks. But I snapped out of that judgmental mode for the common sense reasons that “The New Old Me” is so well-written and smart, and because the author herself, in the throes of an unwanted divorce, pleads guilty to being a needy, weepy bundle.
Without sugarcoating her relationship flaws, she cheerfully (well, not exactly, but honestly) refers to singlehood as her “pity party,” a “cascade of catastrophes” and her “Plan B life.”
At 61, Maran has left her wife and home and moved from Oakland, Calif., to Los Angeles. Starting over is not easy when you’re heartbroken and your soon-to-be ex, after 20 years together, has opted for stonewalling over amicability.
“My wife and I were the happiest couple anyone, including us, had ever known,” Maran writes. “Overnight, our beauty went ugly. No fighting one day; nothing but fighting the next. . . . For three years we wrestled, trying to find our way back to each other, ourselves, the once-magical us. Nothing worked.”
The wife (who is never referred to by name) is not handed the mic, nor does she seem to deserve it. “Mean!” I began writing next to sentences describing her failures to answer Maran’s calls, texts or emails. C’mon! Would it have killed her to give an inch, wonders the reader planted on the side of the woman scorned.
Maran manages simultaneously to document her own “booby-prize life” and wryly mock it, as when she reports a friend sighing “with empathy or with compassion fatigue.” She describes herself as “kvetchy and blue,” but she owns it, one day, one sniffle at a time. “Mimicking a person who’s capable of functioning is actually making me functional,” she notices.
She harks back often to being a nice Jewish girl from New York City who ran away from home at 16 to live with a boy her parents wouldn’t let her date. She married someone else, had two sons, divorced; switched to “wimmyn-loving.”
Missing for me was communication, if any, with those now-adult sons, especially during her lonely “sorrow-struck” years. Is she estranged from her children, or is this a case of a mother honoring a request to leave them out of the book? Their absence nags, at odds with the woman who doted in earth-mother fashion on new and old friends.
A daughter of “devoutly atheist Jews,” she has discovered that “once I’d put God in charge, I started sleeping better. And so was born my foul-weather faith.” Not unrelated, and whoever the alcoholic in her life was, she finds solace at Al-Anon meetings, “working at being unapologetically, serenely who we are.”
There are touching scenes between the author and her father in his dying days. But unexplained is the cause of their eight-year estrangement, chronicled in Maran’s 2010 memoir “My Lie.” In those pages, she had mistakenly accused him of molesting her, based not on experience but false recovered memories. It seems a rather important piece of father-daughter relations to exclude, especially given the reconciliation and devotion found late in life.
But never mind what isn’t on the page. We get to witness her L.A.-influenced plastic surgery consultation, her good real estate karma, her forays into online dating and a few rolls in the hay. Soon enough after a dating hiatus Maran recognizes “that singleness isn’t going to fix itself.” All this copywriter needs her profile to do is to sell herself “to that one brilliant, beautiful, gregarious, witty, left-leaning, adventurous, curious, outdoorsy, upbeat but not chirpy, deep but not morose, well-traveled, book-reading, stylish-but-not-superficial lesbian who lives within twenty miles of me.” Enter Helena. No spoiler here, just to say she is fit, pretty, financially successful, levelheaded, generous and geographically appropriate.
Maran’s satirical high beams shine especially bright when aimed at the fashion company she calls Bellissima, which brought her to L.A. as a copywriter. “Ethnic art hangs on every vertical surface — paintings, textiles, garments, masks of many lands. . . . The dining area is centered around a long pine table containing a still life of contemporary takeout culture and its detritus: wrinkled chopstick wrappers, Trader Joe’s tikka masala boxes, Chipotle bags, little plastic tubs of satay sauce, glistening kale shreds, and bottles of au courant condiments.”
It is lovely to see Los Angeles through the author’s eyes: a “tough, thrilling town,” a “bright grin of a city” that’s “blessed and bathed by the most show-offy weather God and climate change have to offer.”
This “glass-half-empty-person” has had a tough row to hoe, relocating, searching for Ms. Right while still “idealizing my dead marriage.” But things are looking up. Her friends are bricks, her boundaries are porous, and her heart is big. When she muses, “Maybe I’ve accidentally come to exactly the right place,” we reader-companions vote yes.
Elinor Lipman’s 11th novel, “On Turpentine Lane,” was published in February.
My Late-Life Reinvention
By Meredith Maran
Blue Rider. 288 pp. $27