OK, I’ve been trying to write this post for over a week now. And it just hasn’t been happening. I start it, I get distracted and end up doing something else. I begin writing, then something shiny catches my attention and I’m completely off-task. This doesn’t generally happen to me. Usually when I sit down to write, I write, I quickly revise and I post. The whole process takes MAYBE 20 minutes. But it’s taken me well over a week to get this down. And I think I’ve figured out why, which I’ll explain at the end of the post that never ends.
I finished Natalie Taylor’s memoir Signs of Life last week. Taylor tells the story of life after the sudden death of her husband. At 24, Taylor finds herself widowed and five months pregnant.
I’ll say off the bat that I really liked Signs of Life. It was touching in places if ultimately uneven, and I think I genuinely like Taylor’s voice. She made me care about her in a way I don’t usually care about the writers of tragedy memoirs. Usually when I read the memoir of someone who has suffered profound tragedy, I find them un-relatable. I’m lucky–my young life has been filled with very little real tragedy. So generally when I read tragedy memoirs, I’m saddened by them but I find no connection to them. I’m not the child of drug addicts or a multiple amputee and while I can sympathize with those people, I have a harder time empathizing with them. (Deeper emotional issues there? Probably!). But I liked Taylor because we DID have a lot in common. She is a high school English teacher. I am a high school English teacher. She got married young. I got married young (although Taylor was married two year before I was). She completed a Team in Training event (triathalon), I competed a Team in Training event (half marathon). She often turns to literature for comfort in hard times, I often turn to literature for comfort in hard times. And it was these connections that made me like Taylor and feel so saddened by her story.
Taylor was funny and realistic. Her reactions to grief, the grieving of others and moving on with her life felt real because they didn’t feel forced. Apparently Taylor kept journals during the months after her husbands death and, with editing, turned these journals into Signs of Life. This probably helped make her voice easier to relate to and more realistic. She didn’t write the story of her grief years later, worried about appearing sad enough; she wrote the story of her grief as it happened, giving it an immediacy and a realism. I especially enjoyed how frustrated Taylor became with her grief, how she expected to be able to cope with it better. At one point, when her doctor reminds her that grief takes time, her immediate response is “But what about for the smart kids?” Taylor doesn’t try to make herself into a saint–she acknowledges her very real frustrations with family, friends and herself and that honesty is refreshing.
Parts of Taylor’s book were uneven. Because of the journal style writing, the structure was sometimes inconsistent. In some chapters, she focused heavily on the literature she uses in the classroom as metaphor for her life story. In others, the literature falls away. I also hated her use of nicknames. Taylor has lots of fun, probably endearing nicknames for her friends and family. As anyone would in their journal, Taylor uses the nicknames throughout the book. But because she never explains what nickname belongs to what friend (and some friends have more than one nickname), they feel tiresome and cloying. In places they even get in the way of the story.
But Taylor’s memoir was a good, quick read. It was funny in some places and moving in many. It made me want to hug my own husband and forbid him to die (done and done). It made me thankful for the role being a teacher plays in my life, and grateful for what I have.
OK, I think the reason this mild-mannered review of Signs of Life took so long is because, while it was a good read, it DIDN’T profoundly touch me. It was nice, but it didn’t change my life. And because I didn’t feel much about it, it was hard for me to commit to writing it. I was looking for something I COULD connect to, COULD feel deeply about. I just didn’t find it in this book. So while Taylor’s book was definitely a quick, easy read it didn’t stick with me. I’m not sure if it was supposed to–did Taylor write it as a treatise on grief or just a “here’s my story, maybe it will help you” book? Not sure. But I’m hoping my next read affects me more deeply!