For Sin­gle Moth­ers Work­ing as Train Conductors

Lau­ra Esther Wolfson
  • Review
By – September 3, 2018

Lau­ra Esther Wolfson’s mem­oir is a mean­der­ing, con­tem­pla­tive walk through the quo­tid­i­an of its author’s life, as she mulls over top­ics that range from mar­riage to work to ill­ness. The book opens with the sto­ry of Wolfson’s first mar­riage, a union doomed by her husband’s refusal to have a child. But Wolf­son forces her­self to admit that was not all that end­ed the mar­riage, star­ing down her own respon­si­bil­i­ty in the demise of the rela­tion­ship. Some­times,” she tells us, long after a mar­riage is over, clar­i­ty comes about spe­cif­ic issues that sparked resent­ment … what hap­pened is sim­ply this: I shamed him … in a way that tran­scend­ed language.”

Wolf­son describes a life that is at once cap­ti­vat­ing and dull — the way life gen­er­al­ly is. The book takes us to Paris, where romance is blos­som­ing in the narrator’s life while ill­ness blooms ter­ri­bly in her lungs. We are, specif­i­cal­ly, in Mont­martre, where Wolf­son has just been diag­nosed with the degen­er­a­tive dis­ease that will make it pro­gres­sive­ly hard­er for her to breathe — and work, write, and walk. She has a boyfriend, Tris­tan, whom she’ll even­tu­al­ly mar­ry. Pages lat­er, we’re with her in New York, read­ing Proust on the sub­way. The nar­ra­tive con­tin­ues to jump around like this, tak­ing leaps in place and time.

Some­times these mean­der­ings are engag­ing, as in the case of the author’s search for faith: born Jew­ish, but not raised with­in a con­gre­ga­tion, Wolfson’s family’s Judaism is expressed, amus­ing­ly, through their choice of bread: pumper­nick­el, chal­lah, bagels, rye. She doesn’t enter a syn­a­gogue until she’s well into adult­hood. Her reflec­tions on her Jew­ish­ness or lack there­of are charm­ing and will like­ly res­onate with many read­ers who were brought up at the fringes of a faith. She shows us the ways in which reli­gion is about more than God, dic­tat­ing even what ends up on our plate — and how this, too, is a way to belong. Is there ful­fill­ment to be found in exist­ing on the out­skirts of a tribe, in being sep­a­rate but a part? We work through ques­tions like this with Wolf­son on the page.

Wolf­son’s prose through­out is deft and exact­ing, her choice of details metic­u­lous. Read­ers will want to see what she does next with her lines, even for­giv­ing the lack of a nov­el­is­tic plot. But there are moments when some will find them­selves thirst­ing for a less under­stat­ed through-line, and when they will find Wolf­son unsym­pa­thet­ic as a char­ac­ter, such as when she pass­es on trans­la­tion requests from near­ly dying men.

All told, this book is per­fect for any­one who wants to hitch a pen­sive, real ride into a woman’s inte­ri­or, transat­lantic, and very exam­ined life.

Emi­ly Sulz­man is a writer and PhD stu­dent study­ing lit­er­ary non­fic­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cincinnati. 

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