A writer and mother of two sons conquers some of her fears of life in the single lane
Breaking Apart: A Memoir of Divorce. By Wendy Swallow. Hyperion/Theia, 293 pp., $29.95.
The Triumph of Love Over Experience: A Memoir of Remarriage. By Wendy Swallow Hyperion/Theia, 304 pp. $24.95.
By Janice Harayda
You could easily conclude from Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling memoir of life after divorce, Eat, Pray, Love, that the best way to recuperate from a failed marriage is to run off Bali and have so much sex with your island lover that you get a bladder infection. Perhaps for Gilbert it was.
But who speaks for the newly single women who struggle to come up with $5.99 for a Christmas tree for their children? One answer is: Wendy Swallow, a former reporter for the Washington Post, who has written perhaps the best memoir of the decade about the collapse of a marriage.
Breaking Apart is a beautifully written account of social, emotional and professional effects of divorce on a mother of two boys, then ages 3 and 5, who was so frightened of going public with her separation that “it took me months to build up the courage to tell my parents.” A typically poignant moment occurs when Swallow picks her younger son up after his first overnight stay with his father and he is so amazed to see her that he cries, “You came back!” Swallow also writes with scathing candor about dating after divorce, including her experiences with older men – in their late 50s or early 60s – who had raised families and now wanted to have fun:
“With many of these men I felt as if I could have been just about anybody, as long as I was attractive and witty, because it was never about me. I often felt like a prop in a play – their play. I was perfect for them, they said, without ever asking if they were perfect for me.”
The sequel to Breaking Apart is a disappointment. Swallow’s second marriage involved unexpected problems – for her and for her new stepfamily – and her premature memoir of it has much less clarity and authority than her first book. Remarriage, she says, “destabilized” her sense of herself. It also destabilized her writing. Instead of offering the consistently original thought of Breaking Apart, she pads The Triumph of Love Over Experience with research and quotes from the sort of experts who appear regularly in pop psychological books and articles. Some of what she says is interesting:
“In first marriages, sociologists have found, happiness flows the parents to the kids. If the parents are happy, the children tend to be happy. But in remarriage, it’s the other way around: Happiness flows from the kids to parents … Unhappy children are, in fact, the biggest risk factor in whether a stepfamily makes it or not.”
But this kind of material is available elesewhere. And often The Triumph of Love Over Experience simply regurgitates therapeutic clichés, such as that “the key to sanity is letting go of those things you can’t control and focusing on those you can.” That may be true. But if you search for “control what you can control,” Google returns more than a half-billion pages. So while Breaking Apart transcends the subject of divorce, The Triumph of Love Over Experience has a much narrower appeal. At the end of the book, Swallow still seems to be wrestling with so many problems that she leaves you wondering if that word “triumph” in the title wasn’t intended, in part, ironically.
Best line: The first line of Breaking Apart: “As a fantasy, divorce has a lot to recommend it.”
Worst Line: In The Triumph of Love Over Experience, Swallow buys so heavily into the jargon of pop psychology that instead of admitting that things are a pretty much of a mess, she keeps using cloying euphemisms like: It was “challenging,” “it was a challenge,” and “that would be a challenge.”
Editor: Leigh Haber
Published: April 2001 (Breaking Apart), June 2004 (The Triumph of Love Over Experience).
Furthermore: The new The Honeymoon’s Over: True Stories of Love, Marriage, and Divorce (Warner, $24.99), edited by Andrea Chapin and Sally Wofford-Girand, deals with some of the same topics as Swallow’s books. This collection of original essays about make-or-break moments in marriages contains work by female authors who include Terry McMillan, Joyce Maynard and Martha McPhee.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.