Sunday, February 3, 2013

"She Matters," by Susanna Sonnenberg

When Susanna Sonnenberg published her first memoir, “Her Last Death,” I read the reviews and decided not to read the book; that story of her fraught relationship with her very difficult (narcissistic, drug-addicted) mother sounded extremely depressing. (I know that should not be a reason not to read a book, but I confess that for me, sometimes that IS a reason.) But when I saw that Sonnenberg had written a new memoir, “She Matters: A Life in Friendships” (Scribner, 2013), I was drawn to the book because it was about female friendships, a favorite topic of mine. I thought that it would be about how the author’s friendships helped and healed her after the trauma and sadness of her relationship with her mother, and that it would be a love song to the wonderful friendships that women are able to create, and that so sustain us. Certainly there is some element of that in the book. The author herself states that she has been constantly looking for replacements for her mother, in one shape or another. And Sonnenberg has had many close relationships with women over the years, often very intense, full of shared confidences, mutual support, and much time spent together. But somehow most of these friendships -- from those of her youth and college years through those of her young adulthood and of mothering young children, and beyond -- end. Sometimes they end because the friends drift away, and in one case because the friend died, but very often they end more dramatically, with a sudden break, a fight, or a statement of rejection that rings with finality. These breaks often come as a complete surprise to the author, and are beyond painful for her. This happens over and over again, and the author does not seem to develop much understanding of why it happens, although she does acknowledge that she has been told that she is too intense, and demands too much of her friends. I give Sonnenberg much credit for her candor and courage in telling these stories, stories that often do not show her at her best. And I feel very sad for her, both because of her terrible mother (their relationship ended in estrangement and finally in her mother’s death) (and her relationship with her father was better but quite fraught as well, right up to his death), and because of these many failed friendships. Once again, as in so many memoirs, this memoir shows what a huge handicap it is in life not to have had during childhood (and later as well) the unconditional love and support of one's parents, that love that the more fortunate among us have had. I also admire that the author did develop more self-awareness along the way, and did work on herself and tried to teach herself how to live a more normal and fulfilled life than her mother had prepared her to do. My disappointment with the book’s not being the story of happy, fulfilling friendships is unfair, in asking the reality – and the book -- to be something it is not and could not be; it is Sonnenberg’s story, after all. I must say that the author was able to make it a compelling read that caught me up in its twists and turns, and I never considered not reading it to the end. Still, the main feeling I left the memoir with was that “She Matters” is an deeply unsettling and unhappy book.

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