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.