Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: Lucky: A Memoir, by Alice Sebold

Disturbing Subject Matter but an Important Book: A Book Review of Lucky: A Memoir by Alice Sebold

It's hard to read, let alone review, a book about rape, but I think that this book it is an important one. Lucky
is a memoir about a college student who was attacked and raped in the park by her campus. Despite its difficult subject matter, Lucky reads smoothly. I feel that this is an accessible book for people to read who would like to understand better how to deal with rape, and to see all the ways that it impacts someone.

For me there were four distinct parts of this book (although the writer did not designate them as such – it just felt to me to read like that). The first part was the beginning, in which the actual rape sequence is told right up front. It is hard to digest but is written very clearly and directly. I really felt for the narrator in the next scenes, which immediately follow the rape, in which she goes to the police and is examined and has to tell her friends and family members what happened. At one point she describes something that I imagine must be almost as horrible as the rape itself – having to live the rest of her life as a rape victim:

“I knew exactly what had happened. But can you speak those sentences to the people you love? . . . That question continues to haunt me. After telling the hard facts to anyone from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes.”

The second part of Lucky: A Memoir, for me, described the weeks and months following the rape. I found this part to be lacking because it seemed to me that the narrator wasn’t really dealing with her true feelings. I suppose that that is how it actually happened, though, and she did a good job of making me feel like I was right there with her in that time and that space, even though I often wanted her to do things differently. At times it seemed like she was pushing the rape out of her mind completely, and writing about her college classes and other things that any book about any college student would include. I wanted her to focus more on the issue, but perhaps she dealt with it by not focusing on it. In this part the theme of writing was introduced, which I did enjoy. Sebold dealt with her emotions by writing poetry and fiction. She took classes and seminars by Tobias Wolff and Tess Gallagher. Tess Gallagher is actually a pretty central character in the book, who accompanies Alice to court when she has to confront her attacker (although she’s disappeared by the end of the book without explanation, leaving me to wonder what happened).

The third part of the book, which I really liked, moved on to show how the narrator was intent on prosecuting her attacker. It was easy to cheer for her and she showed a lot of strength and wisdom. She describes the legal process well and at one point she mentions wanting to go to law school so that she can prosecute other criminals (she later decides to pursue teaching instead, and says it became her lifeline and salvation). It seems very fulfilling that the narrator finds some kind of justice and closure in the midst of all her suffering. At the same time, she is still human. I could tell that the rape had affected her and that in some ways it had changed her in a negative way. She seems to use men for own reasons and disregard what they must be feeling. She has a strange relationship with her father that she never quite explores in depth the way I wanted her to. (At times she has a close bond with her mother, who is always anxious and has panic attacks). Through all of these shortcomings, however, for most of the book she seems strong and like someone to whom most readers would be able to relate, despite the horrible thing that happened to her.

The fourth and last part of the book, though, takes a strange turn. I don’t want to include spoilers so suffice it to say that the narrator is no longer the intelligent, strong fighter that the reader had gotten to know and admire. This made me feel like my hunch was correct that she hadn’t been dealing internally with the aftermath of her rape. I was disappointed at her downfall but, more than that, it didn’t seem to make sense to me. I thought that the writer should have spent more time on the last part of the book and less time with the mundane intricacies of college life. I felt there were issues left unexplored in the book.

Overall, I “enjoyed” reading Lucky: A Memoir, although that is a strange thing to say about a rape memoir. I thought it was well-written and that it dealt with some very important social issues. I especially liked how it explored the subject of how different women deal differently with rape, and the need for there to be open dialogue about it. The writing in parts is flourishingly poetic, which was a strange offset for the subject, but it usually worked. I would like to read another book by Alice Sebold to see whether the tone works even better with a lighter subject matter (although, from what I understand, her novel Her Lovely Bones has anything but a light subject matter). I give Lucky: A Memoir three and a half stars and would recommend the book, but be forewarned that the subject matter is obviously difficult.

Click here to purchase Lucky (I will receive a small portion of the proceeds):

Quotes from Lucky:

“No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

“Poetry is not an attitude. It is hard work.” (Quoting Tess Gallagher)

“Memory could save . . . it had power . . . it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized.” (Referring to Tobias Wolff’s own story, This Boy’s Life)

“You never get over some things.”

From an interview with Alice Sebold that is published as a supplement in the back of the book:

Question: People often wonder if writing is therapeutic. If you’re writing about a trauma, does that help the pain of the trauma recede? Susie in the novel [a different book] says something like every time she tells her story, a drop of the pain goes away. But as a writer who’s written about your own trauma and then written a fictionalized version of a similar trauma, is writing therapeutic or do you think that that’s really the wrong way to approach it anyway?

Answer: My feeling is that therapy is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing should not be published. My job as a writer is to go through the therapy myself and, if I manage to get through it and I feel I have something to share from that, to share it with my audience or my readers. But I don’t’ write novels and seek to have them published so that I can get therapy from having written them. That’s really the responsibility of an individual to do outside the context of their published work.

My notes on the book: At one point, due to the trauma, Alice wakes up with night sweats and sometimes screaming – sounds like night terrors. Dorland Mountain Arts Colony – rural California. Hayden Carruth, Jack Gilbert and Diane Wakowski – poets. Olga Cabral (“Lillian’s Chair”) and Peter Wild (“Dog Hospital”). Raymond Carver. Robert Bly. Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin – feminist writers. She was raised in Paoli, Pennsylvania, near Frazer. She went to Syracuse College in New York. She lived in New York City for some years after college. She spends some time in California. She attends graduate school to pursue her MA in Poetry for awhile at the University of Houston.

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