After her divorce, a California woman looked for a new home, lover and sense of spiritual community.
The Wishing Year: A House, A Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire. By Noelle Oxenhandler. Random House, 282 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
Bookstores should probably display The Wishing Year in a section called “Eat, Pray, Clone.” This book is one of the first – but certainly won’t be the last – to join the rush to imitate Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir of her post-divorce travels in Italy, India and Indonesia.
The Wishing Year is nonetheless very different book, and not just because Noelle Oxenhandler wanted a new home, a lover and spiritual “healing” instead of Gilbert’s “pleasure,” “devotion” and “balance.” I’m apparently one of the few Americans who was underwhelmed by Eat, Pray, Love, which made life after divorce sound like an exercise in high-flying consumerism. But Gilbert has strengths: She’s witty, she writes in a breezy journalistic style, and, above all, she puts herself out there. She’s an emotional exhibitionist. Want to know which incident drove her to confess that she found masturbation “a handy tool”? Or hear about how she went to Bali for “balance” but had so much sex with her new boyfriend that she got a bladder infection and had to drink a vile witch-doctor’s brew to cure it? God love her, Gilbert will tell you.
Oxenhandler has practiced Buddhism for 30 years and has a more reserved and contemplative temperament and a more literary writing style. Except for relatively brief trips to France and Hawaii, she also tended to stay close to home as she pursued her goal: She wanted to spend a year “wishing brazenly” for earthly things such as a house instead of intangibles like peace or compassion, as was her wont. She defines “wishing brazenly” vaguely enough that it’s hard to know what it involves beyond “focused attention.”
But it doesn’t seem have included anything so crass as the usual advice from business gurus: Set goals, break them into parts, work on them daily, and monitor your progress. Oxenhandler plunged instead into a series of New Age-y activities that reflected her interest in Far Eastern mysticism. She had a “fire ceremony” to burn away her “remorse” for her failed marriage, which ended when she and her married Zen teacher fell in love. She cut dollar bills into tiny rectangles to suggest an abundance of money. (“I know it’s a crime to cut legal tender,” she writes, “but if anyone questions me, I’ve done my research and I’ve got my answer ready: Don’t you know anything about imitative magic?”) At a “shamanic journey” she had a vision of the fictional Aunt Jemima, who later gave her advice on how to spend Thanksgiving. If Oxenhandler were a less graceful writer, you might quit long before she watches a film about The Secret.
By the end of The Wishing Year, Oxenhandler has fulfilled some of her desires, including her wish to own a house. She credits this partly to her newly “focused attention.” But she undermines this claim — and much of her story — when she tells a stranger in the last chapter she’s writing a book on wishing. The belated admission that she had financial stake in her pursuits leaves you wondering: Did she really pursue some of the loopier activities she describes because she wanted to test her ideas about wishing? Or did she do it because without them she wouldn’t have had a book?
Eat, Pray, Love raised similar questions but with less damage to its credibility. Gilbert’s book had a dual purpose: that of a memoir of divorce and of a travelogue. And you believe that she wanted to visit places like Bali. Who wouldn’t?
But Oxenhandler casts her book primarily as an inquiry into questions like: “Does a wish have power?” and “If so, what kind of power is it, and how can that power be tapped?” She is coy about when she got a book contract. But it’s possible that a timely advance had more to do with her ability to buy a house than any “shamanic journey.” If so, it would have been fairer to readers to say that. And it might have made for a more interesting and cohesive book. A major question left unanswered is: Where did she find the money for the downpayment apart from a maternal gift that she admits didn’t provide nearly what she needed?
Memoirs have been tarnished recently by writers who have trampled on facts or failed to supply all that their stories require. One critic has said that more and more of their authors seem take as their premise, “It’s true if I say it is.” The Wishing Year is yet another memoir that leaves you thinking more about what it didn’t say than what it did.
Best line: The first: “It is, in itself, an ancient wish: the wish that a wish makes something happen.”
Worst line: Oxenhandler quotes Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and adds: “And a wish, as I understand it, is a desire with feathers – an arrow’s feathers and an arrow’s sharp point.
“So then, how is a wish distinguished from a hope? To me, it’s the sharp point that makes the difference. For while hope implies loft, the aspiration to soar toward what is yet to come, I see it primarily as an inner state…. As for a wish: only with both feathers and a sharp point can it reach what it aims for …”
That a wish can come to fruition only if it has “feathers and a sharp point” is clearly untrue. Some wishes go unfulfilled because of, for example, bad luck or government policies. Would Oxenhandler say that starving people in Darfur can achieve their wish for food “only” if their wish has feathers and a sharp point? Or that very ill Americans who lack health insurance can achieve their wish for treatment “only” if their wish has those things? Oxenhandler makes generalizations as a privileged, well-educated, middle-class America that, if you try apply them to other groups, sound like blaming the victim.
Recommendation? This book might make a good gift for your New Age-iest friend – say, somebody who still throws the I Ching. Read the reader-reviews on Amazon if you can’t decide whether to give this to a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, because some deal with this.
Editor: Caroline Sutton
Published: July 2008 www.noelleoxenhandler.com
Read an excerpt at www.randomhouse.com/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9781400064854
Furthermore: Oxenhandler lives in California. She wrote A Grief Out of Season.
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© 2008 JaniceHarayda. All rights reserved.