Ah, the 1970s! That glorious time before seat belt laws and bicycle helmets. In the 1970s we stayed out, unsupervised in our neighborhoods, past dark and ate sugary cereals every day for breakfast. We wore knee socks and rainbow shirts. And then came the boom of the ’80s. America was rich and powerful, and we all felt the same way. The music was happy and the television decadent. But of course, growing up in the ’70s and ’80s wasn't always so wonderful. Even as the country prospered and we partied at discos, families were struggling in ways they always have: with anxiety, frustration and misunderstandings threatening to bury the love.
In her new memoir, DISASTER PREPAREDNESS, Heather Havrilesky examines family life against the cultural backdrop of the late ’70s and the ’80s in suburban America. There is both the self-created, internal disasters of a young woman coming of age and the painful disasters of a family breaking apart. All of it is written in a compelling and provocative way.
DISASTER PREPAREDNESS is more precisely a collection of 15 autobiographical essays than a chronological memoir. Each stands alone just fine, though altogether they paint an interesting and personal family portrait. In the first chapter, “Cousins,” Havrilesky begins by recalling how she and her siblings made up an “alternative version” of the board game “Clue,” where instead of trying to solve a murder they are trying to commit one. It is an odd but endearing picture of the children as they use pieces from the game “Sorry!” to act as witnesses to their crimes, creating a new set of rules for the macabre but funny version of the classic game.
But suddenly, readers are told, “around the same time my parents stopped making the slightest effort to hide their distaste for each other, we started taking long family vacations in the car each summer.” This jarring switch in tone and topic is typical of the book, and though it sometimes feels frantic and unfinished because the segues are lacking, more often than not it serves Havrilesky well as she pulls readers in to the uncertainties and tensions of her family. When her parents finally do divorce, she begins to understand them as individuals, not just as two sides of a bad relationship. It is the moments when she examines her parents as people, apart from each other, that DISASTER PREPAREDNESS is at its best.
Havrilesky's mother was a faculty wife who married Havrilesky's mercurial father young. When Havrilesky was nine years old, her mother moved out of the family home into a studio apartment. The tale of the divorce is peppered with cultural nostalgia (the Bumble Bee brand tuna jingle, bookshelves lined with John Updike novels, etc.), but her levity cannot mask the seriousness of the subject. Again, it is her use of contrast that makes the book so interesting and occasionally frustrating. Her father, a bombastic and clever professor, often steals the show. And perhaps it is because, as we learn, he died of a heart attack at the young age of 56, that her focus on him is so raw, tender and forgiving. He is at once a bully and a hero in Havrilesky's honest and conflicted portrait. He, more than anyone, is the figure we want to know more about, to fully understand. But with his death, Havrilesky and her readers must attempt to understand him only through the deeds and words already done.
As the book progresses, it moves closer and closer to the image of her father Havrilesky is wrestling with, and that is its most compelling element. Despite all the other themes --- religion, sibling relationships, the break-up of marriages, and the forging of adolescent identity --- it’s the examination of the father-daughter relationship that makes DISASTER PREPAREDNESS worth reading. It’s also the poignancy of Havrilesky's memoir that makes you wish it was all pulled together just a bit tighter.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on December 30, 2010