LOVE AND TROUBLE. By Claire Dederer. Knopf. 237 pages. $25.95.
The memoir “Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning” by Claire Dederer had me laughing out loud, groaning in recognition and folding over so many pages that the volume looks like a used college textbook. Dederer says that she didn’t want to write a coming-of-age novel and doesn’t like the term “mid-life crisis,” but her memoir is a mash-up of both. It’s the story of a married woman in her mid-40s with two children who finds herself suddenly struggling to get out of bed.
“I wanted to be unconscious; short of that I wanted to not think,” Dederer writes. “There were so many things that I couldn’t bear to think about; better and easier to pull the covers over my head.”
The author decides that the antidote to this catatonic state is re-reading her high school diaries. What she reads saddens her, but gives her a purpose: to examine the wildness and hyper-sexuality of her youth in order to make sense of her current, emotional state.
Each chapter is cleverly titled (“How to Have Sex with your Husband of Fifteen Years,” “Scratch a Punk,” “Find a Hippie”). In the chapter “A Geography of Crying,” Dederer describes the emotional upheaval of this mid-life state.
“I was like Brian Wilson, doing my sighing and crying, laughing at yesterday, in my room. In fact, all the women were crying. Our husbands and boyfriends and partners thought it was self-pity. Maybe it was. They said it was self-indulgent and sort of bratty. Probably so. And yet we went on crying. We didn’t know why. All the women were crying, but we didn’t cry everywhere. We didn’t cry at our children’s school; or at our regular grocery store, where the checkers knew us; or at work, or at least at meetings at work. We stored our tears up and then turned them on, faucet-like, when the place was right.”
The image of these crying women is funny and terrible, and is part of what makes this book so much fun to read. These moments of darkness are broken up with moments of great humor in a way that feels intimate, as if you’re in a conversation with your best friend.
Chapter four, “A Kiss May Ruin a Human Life,” begins with a line from her 1983 diary when the author was 16. “All I want to write about is boys, boys, BOYS.” During the paperback tour of her previous memoir, “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” Dederer found herself flirting with another man, a fellow writer. He kissed her and she felt “guilty and excited and full of sharp pain for the lost purity of my marriage.” She returns home to her husband and children and is tormented and thrilled by the kiss and the emails that follow. “This is what it had been like to be young.” His emails make her feel seen when being seen by her husband is no longer enough, and the realization is unsettling.
Dederer employs a variety of writing styles to tell her story, including “a case study” in a particularly funny chapter called “Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the Pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female.” Referring to herself in the third person, she describes her sexual coming-of-age, writing that “sex, for that short while, seemed a mostly benign thing, possibly even an improving hobby, like learning the dulcimer or making your own yogurt.” She includes a graph that charts her sexual activity in relation to her happiness and concludes that “really what she wanted was for sex to make her known.”
In “Love and Trouble,” sex and desire are examined in a bold and refreshingly honest voice. Dederer doesn’t shy away from talking about her sexuality and the way it makes her feel powerful. She’s also honest about the challenges of talking about sex as a woman and the “conflation of victimhood and desire.” Her story makes us ask ourselves whether we can be both a feminist and crave the male gaze. She inspires us to ask what it means to be in the middle of our lives, yet full of longing and desire.
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.