Sunday, February 10, 2008

In Which I Finish A Memoir

Recusal: There is a reason why I simply won’t be able to say much bad about this book. Personal bias precludes me to want to like, no love, this book so I am stating that up front and for the record. If you don’t know why then read page 228.

I received Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum Friday which is why I didn’t do my usual Puppies themed Friday post or my weekly quote. I was going around the house trying to get everything done before I settled down and lost myself in the pages of Janice Erlbaum’s new memoir.

There is a certain challenge in writing a book like this. Occasionally a novel will give away very early on the conclusion of the story. When done well, the reader still feels compelled to read on. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell are perfect examples of how knowing the ending of a story doesn’t stop the reader from slogging through pages of text to learn how the characters got where the give-away beginning tells the reader they will eventually and inevitably be.

The same is very true of memoir. When an author writing a memoir says that they are suffer from suicidal tendencies we, as readers, already know that they did not commit suicide so we need to be drawn into the story through well written dialogue and evocative story telling.

Janice Erlbaum is a story teller. She proved this in her latest memoir, a sort of sequel to her previous memoir which was about why she ran away from home, how she ended up living in a shelter, and what happened to her after she had found a new “home” of sorts within the walls of a shelter. Have You Found Her is about her return, twenty years later, to the same crash pad shelter where she first came off the streets. This time she goes as a volunteer, helping the residents make jewelry.

Immediately the reader knows that Erlbaum is breaking one of the primary rules (don’t have any favorites) as she seeks to find her, the girl who most reminds her of herself when she was homeless and scared nearly twenty years ago. Enter Samantha whose intelligence is almost matched by her damage. The story that Sam tells of her life is enough to break anyone’s heart and Erlbaum’s heart is quickly broken.

Thankfully, at the same time that Erlbaum is being sucked into the emotional vortex of Samantha’s life she is going home to a man who loves her. Bill is that one still point in Erlbaum’s life, a rock on whom she leans and against which she occasionally pushes in spite of herself.

In essence, this is a dual love story as Erlbaum falls more deeply into commitment with Bill and falls in love with this shattered child Sam. And although the reader knows that Sam’s story cannot end well there is an emotional balance provided in the more secure and familiar grounds of Bill’s love.

What is, for me, the most remarkable about this book (and here is where I yet again back away from ever giving an objective review in my highly subjective blog) is how the story unfolds. From a tight beginning the narrative slowly unravels and Samantha’s life does. Then, as the book comes to its almost inevitable end the narrative gets tighter again. As in real life, there are threads that are dropped, forgotten along the way. Yet, as in memoir, there are themes and details that give greater meaning to the details of life. The reader doesn’t expect each and every plot line to be completed because this is not a created narrative. This is life. This is real. And this left me exhausted.

When writing her first memoir Erlbaum was looking back on events that occurred over 10 years earlier. The events of this book, Have You Found Her, are far more recent. Too recent. I don’t honestly know how Erlbaum managed to look so closely at such recently painful experiences and find the strength to no only dig deep but emerge weaving together these threads into anything this cautionary.

I could not have done it and for that alone Erlbaum deserves to be commended. She does a great job of sharing her experiences. I knew this already going into the book because I’d read some of the scenes through posts in her blog. But I did not know the full story and when I finished the book, although I was horrified by what happened, I was not completely surprised. Yes, I wanted things to end differently. This was a memoir, not a novel. In a novel things could have ended with more closure but memoirs are as brutal sometimes as is real life. And it is easy to walk away from memoirs like this feeling weighted down with questions that we feel the author should have answered. However, the questions I am left with are ones only I can answer for myself. What would I have done? How would I have felt? Would the ending of my story been different had I been the one who had tried to save Samantha?

That there are questions left so painfully unanswered is a testament to Erlbaum’s writing. According to her blog she’s already working on book three, a novel. I look forward to seeing where her imagination takes her because her life is so painful to read.


  1. wow..

    That is some review! I believe that you have managed to give readers an idea of just how good the book is..
    now, I am off to buy The Bluest Eye..since you clearly have such good taste in books!

  2. The Bluest Eye is an emotionally draining book. This is also true of other books by Morrison. When I think of Aristotle's discussion of how drama should be cathartic I always think of Morrison, how I feel after I have finished one of her books. Drained. Exhausted. Fulfilled.

  3. Now I *really* want to read this book, too. Thanks for sharing the review!

  4. Sounds interesting. Reminds me of Ian McEwan's Enduring Love, in the that the way the story unfolds contributes to the emotional power of it.

  5. Clarissa, It is so funny you should mention McEwan. I've never read anything by him and a friend loaned me a copy of Atonement. Now I am even more interested in reading it after reading your comment. Thanks!

  6. Escape Brooklyn, I can't wait to hear what your thoughts are after reading it. I envy you that you live in my hometown. You get to see Janice far more than I do if you choose to go to her readings. :)