For very different reasons, six women sign up for a University
extension course in memoir writing. Nurse Nell and Dr. Caryn Henley
work at the Women's Uptown Clinic, and Nell has hoodwinked the
grieving doctor into taking the class. Nell hopes it will help
Caryn come to terms with the loss of her two children and estranged
husband in a plane crash. Nell and Caryn's stories are arguably the
central threads in the plot, certainly the most dramatic, but the
other women we come to know also have compelling reasons to
document their lives.
By the end of the official writing course, we know something of the
conflicts each woman faces. Francine, a recent widow, volunteers
her showcase home to meet every Wednesday evening and the enigmatic
instructor Penny Martin agrees to extend the class for those who
wish it. Francine's memoir, like her entire life, is devoted to
fostering her husband's scientific reputation. "Marc's career was
my career," she explains to the disapproving younger members of the
group. But her requests for input from his colleagues yield more
than she has bargained for, and they require a complete
re-examination of her life.
Sarah Jane Perkins writes to confront her unorthodox upbringing.
Jill McDougall writes to explore her Korean heritage. Rusty Meadows
writes to explain herself to the daughter she gave up as an unwed
teen. Caryn Henley writes (although not about her loss) for the
same reason she works so hard at the Clinic: to get through the
days without killing herself. As events unfold and the women reveal
themselves to each other through their writing, they form strong
And boy, do events unfold! I wondered if this might be a "quiet"
book, dealing mostly with revelation through reflection. But there
is a heavy dose of action, centered on an anti-abortion wacko who
targets the Women's Uptown Clinic. Ms. Kalpakian is every bit as
skilled at describing gun battles as she is in describing the
subtle epiphanies that accompany writing about the past.
The plot flows like the Skagit River that washes away Sarah Jane's
childhood home. My only quibble with the novel was a bit of
metaphysical fuss around the memoir teacher. For me it detracted
from the satisfying real life dramas.
The author's pacing and masterful control of point of view
captivated me. By the end I identified with all of the memoirists
and tearfully agreed with Big Nell's parting sentiments: "Why
shouldn't every day be an anniversary? Why shouldn't every summer
be the last? Why shouldn't you say to yourself on any old day that
rolls, ebbs, and flows into one another: I'm going to remember the
light through these leaves, or the sound of the rain."
Overall THE MEMOIR CLUB is a tender, wise and witty page-turner. It
deserves a wide readership.
Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on January 22, 2011
The Memoir Club