Verdict: Intensely readable, very thought-provoking.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Date Read: January 4th, 2018
Published by Random House, 2017
When thirty-eight-year-old New Yorker writer Ariel Levy left for a reporting trip to Mongolia in 2012, she was pregnant, married, financially secure, and successful on her own terms. A month later, none of that was true.
Levy picks you up and hurls you through the story of how she built an unconventional life and then watched it fall apart with astonishing speed. Like much of her generation, she was raised to resist traditional rules–about work, about love, and about womanhood.
“I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.”
In this memoir, Levy chronicles the adventure and heartbreak of being “a woman who is free to do whatever she chooses.” Her own story of resilience becomes an unforgettable portrait of the shifting forces in our culture, of what has changed–and of what is eternal.
To talk about this book, I have to also talk about memoirs and my relationship with them in general. This book challenged me and my ideas of memoirs, especially those written by women. I have talked about my enjoyment of memoirs elsewhere so it is safe to say that it is a type of book I gravitate to and read a lot of.
Ariel Levy’s memoir is a memoir about loss: the loss of her child, her spouse, and her house. She talks in absolute honesty of that loss and of the person she was beforehand, a person who thought that ‘the rules do not apply’. Living an unconventional life mostly governed by what she wants rather than her surroundings, she stands before a massive pile of broken pieces, having to rebuild not only her life but also her understanding of it. So far, there are plenty o similarities to any number of brilliant memoirs I have read in the last few years (exhibit a, exhibit b, exhibit c), but there is a crucial difference, I think: Ariel Levy does not apologize for the person she is, with all her flaws and edges. This is not a memoir about growth through loss, because why should it be? I adore this, somehow. I adore how unapologetically herself she is, even if that person is probably not somebody I would be friends with. And why should that be a criteria to judge a literary work on to begin with? I think, and a brief look through reviews seems to agree with me, that often female narrators (in fiction) and female authors (in non-fiction) are somehow judged on likability. As if that has any influence whatsoever on the literay merit. As if the way she deals with her (horrific) loss is in any shape or form up for debate. This is her life and her book and her way of framing the story. (This is something I also find to be the case in Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing as well as in Maggie Nelson’s writing, both authors I enjoy immensely and who are also criticized occationally for making things all about them.)
I found this memoir intensely readable, very gripping, and super thought-provoking. Ariel Levy’s writing is impeccable, her structure (both within a sentence as well as in the complete book) works absolutely wonderful, and her voice is perfect. The made me realize that I need to stop thinking about the likability of an author; it made me question my assumptions about the genre. I am so very glad to have read this.
First sentences: “Do you ever talk to yourself? I do it all the time.”
6 thoughts on “Review: The Rules Do Not Apply – Ariel Levy”
Great review, this sounds fascinating! I completely agree that there’s a double standard in how male and female authors are judged for likability, so I really like the sound of this.
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I definitely thought it was – it really made me think about the way in which I engage with memoirs. I still have many thoughts I am mulling over. And the double standard is definitely there and annoying as hell.
A lot of reviews I saw took issue with the last section, saying it was weird or sloppy or didn’t make sense. Well – I’m guessing her life was messy and nonsensical one that moment, you know? I loved this book.
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It’s a bit weird to tell authors of memoirs that their lives don’t make sense, I think. I really enjoyed this as well.