The classic memoir was once a genre that produced writings about “important events related by the great men [and women] who shaped them.” Today the memoir is a substantial part of the library and book store collection, and few of its authors would be considered “greats” of our day. I’ve reviewed memoirists Jen Lancaster and Julie Powell here, and while I’m a huge fan of both, I couldn’t assign them a role as a cultural or historic icon. But they sure were fun to read.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her bestseller Eat Pray, Love of her traumatic divorce several years ago. In Committed, she doesn’t dwell on the divorce but rather her struggle to commit to a legal marriage with a man to whom she has emotionally committed herself for years. Were not for his legal status as a citizen, it may have never been an issue. The result is a highly readable history of marriage. Occasionally Gilbert gets a bit scholarly but it is more fascinating for it. Her research literally takes her all over the world. Her historical time frame reaches as far back as biblical times. She goes beyond the history of marriage and discusses the role of the “Aunt” who could be childless or not; related or not, but always at the ready to provide support for a child not her own. Every culture has “Aunts,” and almost every child can think of a special one while his mother sees her as a God-sent life-saver. Gilbert wrote Eat, Pray, Love in a tone that was chatty, witty but full of insecurity; she wrote Committed with the confidence that comes from choosing her options with an open heart. This book could be the text for Sociology of the Family 101.
Maria Finn, author of Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home doesn’t mince words on the brutal pain she suffered during her divorce. Her Cuban husband and salsa dancing partner admitted to an affair, maybe more, and Finn’s raw despair just makes your throat close up to read it. Even she realizes that no reader can take much more of that and leads us quick, quick, slow to the milongas, tango social dances of New York City and Buenos Aires where dancing in the arms of strangers creates trust without the risk of betrayal; intimacy without compromise. She and other tango aficionados take group and private lessons and practice, practice, practice. Tango, where the dance and the music tell the story of passion, anger, happiness, desire, lust, jealousy, love, was more therapeutic than any pill. Finn’s history of the tango explains why this dance transcends cultures, bridges language barriers and crosses age and social groups. Rudolph Valentino tangoed his way to celebrity, Arthur Murray Americanized it, the Pope banned it, and Queen Victoria didn’t approve of it. In Argentina, Maria Finn dries her eyes, puts on her stilettos, and begins to enjoy the embrace.
Both authors are wise enough to know that they are not historical figures, nor even celebrities. They both have written history/sociology books with their own life story gracefully woven through it. Their life story alone would have been wretchedly self-indulgent, boring and a big embarrassment to everybody. They likely would not have been published. Both Gilbert and Finn were able to elevate a memoir from self-therapy into stories that capture a universal feeling and give us an inside look into a world we’ve never seen or imagined. I’m sure they were roaring over at itunes when I ordered Placido Domingo songs for my ipod.