A review by LESLIE JAMISON
APRIL 3, 2017
THE RULES DO NOT APPLY
By Ariel Levy
207 pp. Random House. $27.
In November 2013, Ariel Levy published an essay in The New Yorker that quickly went viral: “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is a beautifully crafted, harrowing account of giving birth to a baby after 19 weeks of pregnancy, a baby who lived for only a few minutes. I had already admired Levy for years — as a journalist, and a chronicler of human life in its oddity and yearning — and the essay lodged inside me in the way that truly moving writing burrows into your sense of the world and takes up residence for good.
For all my admiration, though, I never once hoped her essay would become a book. It was such a perfect essay. Why would it need to become anything else?
Levy’s new memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” is much more than just an extension of that essay. It’s an account of a marriage and its dissolution, a female writer’s coming-of-age, a woman reckoning with the various cultural scripts that have been written for her gender. But the emotional core of this book is undeniably that loss, and its strongest writing still revolves around it, as if compelled by its unrelenting gravity. Of her son, she writes: “I saw him under my closed eyelids like an imprint from the sun.”
Turning from the essay to the book is an education in the messiness of grief. No story is as simple as its streamlined version in the pages of a magazine, and though there was little that felt traditionally slick or elided in Levy’s essay — it was skillfully and purposefully unvarnished — her memoir opens its camera aperture to show more of the complicated before-and-after around its epicenter: infidelity, alcoholism, ambivalence and estrangement. There’s a deep generosity in Levy’s willingness to acknowledge that trauma is rarely dignified or simple; her writing offers readers a salve against the loneliness of feeling that one’s own sorrow should feel more elegant or pure.
Whenever I teach Levy’s essay, and I teach it frequently, my students often praise it for being “unsentimental.” I know what they mean, that it doesn’t seem to be asking for sympathy, or resolving difficult experience into an easily digested moral, but what I admire about that essay, and what I admire about the strongest passages of this book, is Levy’s refusal to evade emotion. She risks the full tilt of feeling. “Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled,” she writes, and she gives us the song of that vulnerable land. She renders overwhelming sorrow with precise brush strokes and eerie constellations of details: a cellphone photo, a Snickers bar, the smoggy Mongolian sky.
See also : The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir: Ariel Levy