The Journal Keeper: A Memoir. By Phyllis Theroux. Atlantic Monthly Press, 281 pp., $24.
By Janice Harayda
More than two decades ago, Phyllis Theroux moved from Washington, D.C., to a drowsy Virginia town that lacked stop lights but had a house she could afford after a divorce left her in financial peril. She looks back on six years in Ashland in this collection of edited diary entries that reads less like a journal or memoir than a series of meditations for the age of Match.com, the dating service that led her to the man she married in her mid-’60s.
For part of the time covered by this book, Theroux lived with her idiosyncratic mother, who moved in after developing macular degeneration. And The Journal Keeper makes clear that many people would benefit from having such a loving caretaker for their final days. Theroux writes on her mother’s 85th birthday: “My present to her is to be at her disposal for an entire day.”
But the reticence of The Journal Keeper robs it of the force of May Sarton’s trailblazing Journal of a Solitude and more recent accounts of growing old, including Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and Diana Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End. Theroux omits most dates on entries and is so polite to friends and relatives that she gives you little sense of those people and the events that define them. She mentions that her daughter is coming for a 10-day visit and then says nothing about their time together, which leaves you wondering what happened, one of many dropped threads in the book.
Nor does Theroux make you understand how, for someone educated by Dominican nuns, she became so drawn to alternative spiritual disciplines. In Ashland she has sessions with an “energy healer” and writes approvingly of Gary Zukav and Eckhart Tolle, both favorites of Oprah. And she finds more than one kind of inspiration in the writing classes she teaches to pay the bills. After a stop-and-go courtship, she discovers that her “premarriage mood of doom” has lifted: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde and only went out of it two days ago.”
Theroux calls The Journal Keeper “the spiritual equivalent of a personal light box” that avoids “dark developments” and favors the insights she gained from them. This approach leads to more than a few overwrought metaphors and pseudoprofundities. And the insights in the book tend to be less memorable than directly observed incidents that Theroux serves up with little or no commentary. One occurred when friend’s 8-year-old son looked up at a sky full of snowflakes and said, “This is the best day of my life.”
Best line: No. 1: “Living in a small town is like being in a play.”
Worst line: No. 1: “A funeral is like a train station waiting room. We’re all going to board that train someday.” Except that the people in a waiting room aren’t necessarily waiting for the same train. No. 2: Quoted above: “Perhaps, as one student observed, this is because Mercury had been in retrograde … ”
Published: March 2010
Watch the trailer for The Journal Keeper.
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© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.