Book Review: Parallel Lives

review

Note: as part of Throwback Thursday, I’m posting this piece I wrote June 7, 2011, for my LiveJournal blog. I am planning to slowly move over anything of substance from LiveJournal to this one, with plans on turning the LiveJournal into something else.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, by Alison Bechdel. Published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. 232 pages, ISBN 978-0-618-47794-4. Buy at Amazon.com.

Damn you, Christa.

I belong to Goodreads, which is where I post these book reviews. I read her review of Fun Home, and vaguely recognized the name Alison Bechdel (my husband knew of Dykes to Watch Out For, plus I’d heard about the Bechdel test and loved the concept). A graphic novel memoir, it sounded like a fun, quick read.

And I was crying by the time I hit chapter 4.

You see, my parents divorced when I was 4, and my father died when I was 12. Lung cancer. And it was back in the day when getting diagnosed with the disease was pretty much a death sentence. I didn’t know my father very well before he died, and never had the nerve to explore his life from my mother or two brothers afterwards. All I know is he, too, was interested in writing and journalism.

Bechdel’s tale of her father’s death and how she suspects it might have been a suicide after all hit me way too close to home, and it brought up thoughts I thought were long banished from my mind.

I remember the morning we got the call about his death. I remember not quite believing it, and I remember trying to go to school – but the rest of the day is gone from my memory. I also remember hearing about the night before. My oldest brother had been staying with him, attending UMSL, and he said that my father (a former minister) had spent the night singing hymns and praying.

I’ve often wondered how much of that was him knowing death was coming, and how much of it was him helping death along. Bechdel’s tale of her father’s death and how she suspects it might have been a suicide after all hit me way too close to home, and it brought up thoughts I thought were long banished from my mind. The incident, after all, was the catalyst for my current agnostic-leaning-to-atheist beliefs, as my father being diagnosed was the first time I asked (to myself, if not to anyone else) the immortal question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

The story brings me back to the times of my pre-teen (and teen) world, when I would walk up to a nearby bridge that had been built over train tracks, and just sit on the edge – trying to get up the nerve to jump. It was more a fear that I’d survive (and get looks of incomprehension) that kept me from doing it rather than any desire for self-preservation.

“I’d kill myself too if I had to live here,” the narrator thinks at the funeral of her father.

As I continued reading the memoir, the parallels to my own life kept coming up. Oh, I’ve never had the urge to dive for pearls, so to speak (although there have been one or two temptations), but the parallels were there of my own early childhood of being dressed up in pink and lace, my mother finally getting a girl after two boys, and letting it happen even though I hated it out of a desperate plea for her love, acceptance, and most of all understanding. There were parallels of my own desire and need to be a tomboy, and the fights we had as I reached adolescence (and eventually part of the reason I did attend a college five hours away) as I realized I would never feel comfortable with dresses or makeup – my additional interest in theatre equating the makeup to the time when you pretended to be someone you weren’t not helping. Thankfully, as I got older, this friction dissipated, but it was a vital part of who I am today as a result.

I also see parallels of the father being trapped in Beech Creek. “I’d kill myself too if I had to live here,” the narrator thinks at the funeral of her father. That makes up another reason I attended a college so far away – my desperate need to get out of that small town. I was a big city girl, and I knew it.

Taking a cue from one of my “how to write” books or articles I owned, I decided to style it like I was writing letters to a friend.

A slight deviation, Bechtel’s need to journal provided me more with flashbacks than parallels. I have never made friends easily. And I had few I could really talk to. And so I journaled, partly because I knew even then I wanted to be a writer. Taking a cue from one of my “how to write” books or articles I owned, I decided to style it like I was writing letters to a friend. And they were, in a way. They were written to Becky, the name I had given my imaginary friend (that I still get teased about by family) and who was named after a cousin who I used to admire more than anything.

Fun Home did live up to being a quick read. And I guess in a way it was a fun read as well – there were times I laughed as well as felt the pain of memories (and a few times it was both – laughing at the pain). And it has been added to my list of books I would like to buy one day. But it is a deeply personal book, and as a result I can’t say whether I’d recommend it to you. It’s a good read, but whether you’ll be as affected as me? It depends on what kind of a person you are.

So, curse you, Christa. And thanks. It’s been the best new read I’ve had in a long time.