In case you haven’t noticed, we have had a bit of a focus on Michelle Herman around here lately. Last week we reviewed her first novel and her collection of novellas. Yesterday we tackled one of two works released this year, a short novel called Dog.
Today we move on to the second work she has had released this year a non-fiction work composed of four personal essays under the title The Middle of Everything.
The Middle of Everything is subtitled Memoirs of Motherhood and for the most part that is exactly what it is. Herman explores her real life in much the same way she explore the characters in her fiction. She attempts to get inside their head and unpack their emotions and ideas; the mental actions and reactions that track or diverge from their physical life. Obviously in this case she is already inside her own head. But as anyone who had ever tried to make sense of their own feelings and ideas can tell you, this is not always so straight forward.
When it comes to her own past, to being a daughter, friend, or girlfriend, Herman has strong and clear memories. As a result the first three sections are honest, tender, and colorful reflections on growing up, on friendship, and on motherhood. Herman seems, like her own daughter, to have been a precocious child – forced to look elsewhere for comfort because of her mother’s problems. As a result the best parts of the first third of the book try to come to terms with how we develop into the people we are (another theme from Herman’s fiction). Herman, and her daughter, was a particularly observant and imaginative child so she brings us, if we can trust her memories, a first hand account of the events, emotions, and ideas she wrestled with growing up.
But to be honest not having been either a mother or a daughter I found these sections to be interesting but strangely unemotional. It was only the specter of her daughter’s emotional problems that gave the stories tension. Here is how the book flap sets the stage:
When she was three months old, Michelle Herman’s daughter, Grace, went on a hunger strike. At six, she suffered what can only be described, in the old-fashioned way, as a breakdown. And at the ripe old age of eight, she began a study of the nature of “true romance.” Motherhood may come naturally, but it doesn’t necessarily come easily-certainly not as easily as it seemed to this mother when she vowed to do a better job than her own mother had. But the real trouble started when Herman decided that “better” wasn’t good enough: she would be the perfect mother.
Throughout the book I found myself waiting for the shoe to drop: what exactly happened too her daughter? What went wrong? I won’t go into the details of what happened and why – that is better explained in the book – but having a young daughter myself, I must admit I felt a certain amount of trepidation thinking about how such a well intentioned mother and daughter could get so far off track.
And this is what gives the final section such impact. Herman has just spent the last few hundred pages outline her quest for love, friendship, and intimacy and how her pregnancy and the birth of her first child seemed to have fulfilled all of those wants and needs, when suddenly she reveals that things have gone horribly off kilter. The realization that despite all her best intentions she did not provide for her daughter as she should have is a violent punch in the gut that the readers feels reverberating through the closing pages.
The power of the story is raised a level because of the courage of Herman to continue to put her life on the page. Her career and her life have been about unpacking and making sense of the events, ideas, and emotions of life; of living the examined life. As things unfolded with her daughter she could easily, and rightly, closed off that part to the outside world. But instead she chose to continue on with the honesty and insight that has been her hallmark. The result is a deeply personal and poignant story about coming to grips with one’s weaknesses and mistakes; of facing them and working to correct them. In telling her story she hopes to illuminate these issues, and potential pitfalls, for women in similar situations wherever they may be.
As I noted above, not being a mother or a daughter I am hesitant to weigh in to heavily on many of the issues raised in this work. But if you are interested in the themes and issues raised (love, friendship, motherhood, etc.) Michelle Herman explores them with skill and insight. The Middle of Everything may not be for everyone, but it is a tender and poignant exploration by a skillful writer.