May 14, 2009

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Not Becoming My Mother: And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, by Ruth Reichl (2009, The Penguin Press, 112 pages)
Reviewed by Amy Diaz letters@hippopress.com

Anybody who has read Ruth Reichl’s books knows (or feels like they know) her mom.

In Reichl’s memoirs, her mother is an erratic, entertaining, sometimes pain-inducing presence, cooking strange meals and having an at times difficult relationship with her daughter. In Not Becoming My Mother, Reichl makes that character multi-dimensional. The book could also have been called “In Defense of My Mother.” Here, she presents a theory of why her mother, Miriam, acted like she did. It goes something like this: Miriam (who would be about 100 now if she were still alive) wanted to be a doctor but grew up in an age when proper women got married and raised children and didn’t work outside the home. She never thought of herself as beautiful and therefore lacked confidence in herself in a world that judged her on her beauty and the ability of that beauty to land a husband. She had one disastrous marriage and then one that was probably merely difficult for her and never quite felt comfortable with her role in life, always longing for a career. And, Reichl concludes, she tried to give her daughter what she never had in part by making herself look a bit ridiculous to convince her daughter to not be like her, to get Ruth to go for the career that Miriam could never have.

The book is a relatively short one — even at 112 pages it’s airily laid out. It isn’t, perhaps, the adventure that Reichl’s own memoirs are but it’s an interesting reexamination of a person she (and therefore, we, through Reichl) thought she knew, mostly through her mother’s own letters and notes. It has the effect of making you wonder about your own parents and wonder how similar the people you decided they were as a child are to the people they consider themselves to be.

“Interesting” isn’t the blurb that shoots you up the Amazon best seller list but that’s about where the book settles after you read it, probably in one sitting. Post-reading, you’ll have plenty of time to ruminate on your own family or on the changing roles of women — one of the book’s major themes. And if I have a beef with the book, it’s a generational one — Reichl looks at three generations: her own Baby Boomers, her mother, born in 1908, and her grandmother. Her discussion of the changing roles of women ends with her own generation. As a member of a younger generation, the issues she brings up aren’t as settled as I feel she makes them seem. But then one generation’s attempt to understand the generation before it is part of what the book is all about. B-Amy Diaz