Publishing Info: Harper Collins, 2009
Number of Pages: 386
Book Category: Memoir
The book opens with a letter to her son Dev and two short vignettes that set the framework for the story to come. In one of the vignettes, Karr describes herself as a young mother too drunk to see straight, shivering outside on the small porch while chain-smoking and drinking whiskey and promising to change the burnt-out light bulb on the porch tomorrow. Yet when tomorrow comes, the mother finds herself once again shivering in the night air, drinking, smoking and promising once again to change the light bulb. In this one short chapter, Karr sets the tone for the entire memoir.
The narrative starts right before Karr’s college years and progresses chronologically through her life—her struggle to be a poet and writer, her failed marriage to another poet who grew up in a wealthy but emotionally distant family, her struggles with motherhood, her years of therapy and attempts to come to terms with each of her parents, her desperate struggle with alcohol and then her long and painful process to become sober—which included a stop in a mental hospital. But strip away the rest of it, and this books is really about an alcoholic’s struggle to become sober and finding God along the way. It is also about Karr’s attempts to make peace with her mother, whose love she never felt sure of and whose personality shaped so much of what she ended up being as a mother and a woman.
What makes Mary Karr’s memoirs stand out from the pack is her writing. She has a true gift for language and a bluntness that serves her well. She is exceedingly honest in her self-assessment and spares herself nothing. Yet she manages to convey all the ugliness of her life in this beautiful prose that left me marveling. Here are just a few of the passages that I marked while reading.
On her feelings about the power of poetry:
Such a small, pure object a poem could be, made of nothing but air, a tiny string of letters, maybe small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. But it could blow everybody’s head off.
On describing how she slowly began to see the power of God in her life:
This is what an unbeliever might call self-hypnosis; a believer might say it’s the presence of God. Let’s call it a draw and concede that the process of listing my good fortune stopped my scrambling fear, and in relinquishing that, some solid platform slid under me.
On beginning to write again after a long absence:
The writing has come back—with a polished quiet around it. Somehow I feel freer to fail. But the work mortifies me. Previously I’d seen the poems as adorable offspring, but they’ve become the most pathetic bunch of little bow-legged, snaggle-toothed pinheads imaginable. Even the book I published with such pride a few years before—eager to foist it on anybody who’d read it—now seems egregiously dull, sophomoric, phony. If the pages were big enough, I might as well use them to wrap fish.
I think at its core, this book is about Mary Karr’s struggle to become sober and accept God in her life. Throughout the book—as her drinking leads to more and more problems—she tries to run from the demons of her past. Yet when she is finally scared into trying to stop drinking, she fights the help of a Higher Power tooth and nail. As she begrudgingly begins to accept what her sober friends tell her—that accepting God (in whatever way you perceive God) is the only way to true sobriety and peace—she takes you step by step through her conversion process and it is incredibly revealing and powerful. More than any other book I’ve read, I think this book probably makes the best case for the power of prayer and why God’s presence can make a difference in a life.
If you’ve struggled with drinking and been distrustful of the role that prayer and a Higher Power can play in getting sober, this book is a must read as it presents the unvarnished truth about Mary Karr’s struggle to get sober and her initial distrust and eventual acceptance of the role of God in her life. Readers will appreciate her skepticism because it makes her eventual conversion all the more believable and powerful.
If you enjoy reading memoirs, Mary Karr has both the life and the writing skills to make a top-notch memoir that is both literary and down-to-earth. This isn’t the easiest book to read as the subject matter is often sad and disturbing; yet, at the same time, it is often filled with humor and a “humanness” that speaks to us all. Although it took me a while to read (as I often needed a break from it due to the often depressing story), I felt it was well worth my time, and it left me thinking about spirituality and the power of prayer.
Where I Got The Book
I was given an Advanced Reader’s Edition of this book from Harper Collins.