Ruth Reichl Book Lightweight

Ruth Reichl
For You Mom, Finally

Penguin Books
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In the academy where I work, scholars still worry about genres and outdated ideas like the literary cannon. That’s really quite quaint when you think about it, as our students live in a world of mash-ups, category-crossing, and genre-smashing. And lord knows they don’t read very much. I’ve long been an advocate of replacing all literary genres with just two: good books and bad books, a “good” book being that students will read, and a “bad” one that which you can’t bribe, cajole, or force them to read. If that makes Kurt Vonnegut a more important writer than Jane Austen, so be it. (Confession: I think Vonnegut is way better than Austen!)

This brings me to Ruth Rechl’s memoir For You Mom, Finally. Bad book! One reviewer hailed it as a “feminist manifesto.” Good grief! If this is all that feminism has to show in the 47 years since The Feminine Mystique, it’s time to reexamine its assumptions. My reading of this breezy 120-page over-simplification of women’s lives suggests that it’s less a feminist tract than a work aimed at the pseudo-genre of “chick lit.” Given how I feel about scholarly categories, you can imagine what I think of pseudo genres.

Reich is a food critic and TV celebrity, not a literary powerhouse. She has a good story to tell, but she filters it through the nostrums, glib asides, and easy-to-digest analyses suitable for TV rather than asking the harder questions historians would ask. It’s a shame because her story could be compelling. Reichl muses on the meaning of her mother Miriam’s life¬—that of a woman who wanted to become a doctor but yielded every step of the way to the bourgeois gender expectations of the twentieth-century. She studied music, though she was not good at it; took low-level clerical jobs that bored her; and ultimately became a homemaker, though she had no aptitude whatsoever for it. Miriam (“Mim”) never stopped dreaming of being a doctor and moved through life with a spacey detachment from reality that led from one domestic train wreck to the next—think the character of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s superb Housekeeping. Along the way Mim gets lots of bad advice and loads of pharmaceuticals.

The arc of Mim’s tragedy is familiar to those who’ve studied women’s history; in fact, it’s quite similar in many ways to what drove Betty Friedan into the arms of feminism. But those who want to give similar heft to Reichl’s volume are seeing things that aren’t there. Reichl claims to have assembled part of the tale from a cache of her mother’s letters, but there’s no way of telling whether these are actual documents, or a literary device. If they are actually letters, they need to be put into the hands of a critical-eyed scholar. And when a book opens with the admission that “my mother was a great example of everything I didn’t want to be” (7) we must wonder at key moments whether the motives being described are those of Mim, or those imposed by Ruth. Moreover, Ruth admits that her mother’s frustrated ambitions justify her own workaholic lifestyle. When asked why she labors so hard she replies, “Because I can.” (10) But she has no answer for the woman she met at a book signing (117) who asked her why anyone would want to toil as hard as she. (I wonder what Reichl would make of the old Industrial Workers of the World campaign for the “right to be lazy?”)

Herein lies the tale not told. My reading of feminism is that it’s about choices in the plural, not a simplistic either/or selection. Reichl had an opportunity to tell a complex tale of the forces shaping women’s lives; instead she wrote a justification for her own life choices. It is a story filled with enough—as she calls them—“Mim Tales”--to tantalize and suggest, but at every step of the way she opts for cheap emotionality instead of depth. There are several moving passages, but her Kleenex-box approach to writing is classic chick lit to be consumed in a setting no more thought-provoking than the beach.

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