25 October 2018

Lifesaving for Beginners by Anne Edelstein

To be honest I'd never heard of this book before, but the team over at TLC Book Tours knew our love of memoirs and flagged it as something we'd maybe be interested in reviewing. I read the synopsis briefly and learned that it's a woman's account of living with grief after her mother drowns suddenly - sign me up for this type of content every time. I'm incredibly happy that I gave this book a chance (sometimes I can be stuck up about trying new authors). This really feels like the book Anne Edelstein was born to write. She is a born writer who has been hiding out as a literary agent.

Similar to Abigail Thomas's work, or some of Joan Didion's non-fiction writing, this book is not written in any kind of plot sequence. The chapters change but there's no defining break between content. Sometimes Edelstein is providing overview of an event she is at (a holiday dinner, a vacation, etc.) but other times she's just writing about her memories. I really enjoy this format for memoirs, it seems more authentic, but it's the kind of thing I know would drive someone like my mom just nuts and she would send me a text saying how boring it was or how she 'couldn't get into it', despite me telling her she wouldn't like it, and I would want to kill her (love you mom). It's also not similar to the essay format a lot of celebrities use when writing their memoirs. I really find this ramble-y format to be a genre all on it's own and it's definitely an acquired taste.

Back to moms- the main subject matter of this memoir is Edelstein's relationship with her mother. Her mom dies suddenly on a vacation while scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef and I think the mystery of the circumstances really haunt Edelstein as she writes this book. Her mom was a great swimmer, nobody saw anything suspicious, and it happened literally across the world. It's also clear that for whatever reason, Edelstein and her mom had an incredibly strained relationship up until the few months just before she died. She describes her mom as being combative, negative, silently unsupportive, and she could never really figure out the reason why. Edelstein watched her older brother talk so affectionately about their mother at her funeral and got angry, wondering how her brother could lie so blatently... Part of me wonders if what her brother was saying, and how Edelstein remembers her mother could both be true. It's entirely possible for a parent to have a fully different relationship with each of their children. 

I could still sometimes get that clenched feeling when I spoke to my mother on the phone, something that would probably never disappear completely. In all those many years since I'd left home, when I'd talk to my mother every couple of weeks, mechanically reporting on whatever events I could come up with, I had to be careful not to reveal too much. I knew that she could be unpredictable, that sympathy could quickly turn into criticism."

It's super hard to read Edelstein's written guilt over the way her relationship was with her mother. Nobody wants it to take a relative dying to start dissecting your relationship and wondering how you could have done better... I felt compelled to give Edelstein a hug a number of times throughout reading the book. I wanted her mother to somehow tell her she was off the hook for not trying harder while she was alive...

Anne Edelstein

Another major subject throughout the memoir is suicide. Edelstein has a number of family members commit suicide, including her youngest brother, which takes a huge toll on their family. Her brothers' suicide is years before her mother's death, and it's interesting to read her take on how each member of her family handles it. I know nothing about depression and suicide so I won't bother trying to make a genetic case here, but it is interesting to see how even the most normal, seemingly happy, middle-class families can be impacted by something so tragic.

For years I could feel the violence he committed to his body quietly etched on my own. I had been his champion, his companion. We were allies, especially in our shared disdain for our mother. 'You must be so angry at him,' people would repeat to me endlessly after Danny died. But I didn't know what they meant. I loved him deeply and missed him beyond belief. And for years I pledged to myself that I'd keep on being the living part of him in this world."

One of the most interesting pieces of the book for me was the way Edelstein approaches death with her children. At one point she gets in a fight with her brother Ted because he wants to tell his kids how their younger brother died, and that their mom drowned. Edelstein tells her two young children their grandmother has died but not that it involved the water, she's nervous it will make them scared of the water too, which is something I'd never consider. Her younger daughter starts waking up a lot in the middle of the night after their grandmother dies, asking a lot of questions about whether Edelstein herself will die, if they'll see their grandmother again, etc. It would be so hard to grieve the loss of a loved one and also to have to stay strong and navigate it in just the right way for tiny children. I'm sure child psychologists have written books abound on the topic but is there really a right way? I think every parent is just doing their best. Every parent's goal is just to not fuck their kids up.

I really enjoyed reading this book but I do think there's a narrow audience who would. Certainly if you're into memoirs and don't mind the real-time format, or if you have an interest in difficult family dynamics, grief, or suicide, I think this will appeal to you. As the title suggests- it's a really good book to help overcome to loss of a loved one, or to make you feel less alone in the process. I can't think of anyone in my network who this applies to besides Meghan, unfortunately. However, Edelstein is an extremely natural and gifted writer and I hope she continues to write novels as I think every reader can benefit from her emotional authenticity at some point in their lives. 


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