Glenda Burgess begins her memoir, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, realizing that what she has with Ken Grunzweig is something good. She savors this moment and from here sets up her story to the reader as almost a before and after.
Growing up, Glenda lived in a virtually loveless home with a cerebral, alcoholic father and a remote, clueless mother. They eventually divorce; mother and children move to a farm, and the younger siblings learn to love their new surroundings. Glenda, the oldest, yearns for her father and city life, and buries herself in academics, certain that “college was my way out.” Glenda spends most of a lifetime missing love from her mother but finally finds what she craves in Ken.
Ken is 44, older than Glenda. He has been twice widowed; his first wife died in a car crash, his second was murdered seven years ago, and he remains the prime suspect. Ken tells Glenda he’s innocent, and she believes him --- so much so that she gives very little thought to the possible cons before heading to the altar. Ken has a 19-year-old daughter who has had emotional problems since her mother was murdered in the room next to the one where the child slept; their relationship is prickly and he doesn’t want any more kids. Glenda does. When she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant, they decide not only to have the child, but to marry. Eventually they have a second child as well, the requisite boy and girl.
They move around the country, ride out the dot.com boom and the dot.com bust. They take stabs at family reunions and caring for Glenda’s aging, terminally ill and increasingly hermitlike mother. Suddenly their life together hits a bump in the form of a shadow on Ken’s lung.
At this point, THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE becomes a fascinating glimpse into what happens to one member of a couple when the other receives a grim prognosis; terror, fear, anger, compassion and sheer fatigue --- mental as well as physical --- roil around inside the caregiver. Glenda nurses Ken through his grueling treatments, aching for his suffering and scared of what will happen if he doesn’t improve.
She also grows tired, angry and frustrated, and then has the caregiver’s requisite guilt: After a fight, Ken storms out of the house, and “I told myself I was glad for the time alone. One moment, just one moment in my life free of the presence of cancer. But Ken had not taken his cancer with him --- the best rested right in my lap, balled up in the niggling anxiety I felt for my husband’s safety. Was Ken cold? Driving too fast on the icy roads? Oh lord, I shouldn’t have unloaded. I was tired and scared and confused. And he had to be that, and more.”
As it turns out, the leap of faith taken years ago sustains the couple through Ken’s illness, his treatment, the joy when he is pronounced tumor-free and the agonizing heartbreak when that hope turns out to have been a false one.
In the first quarter or so of THE GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE, Glenda paints herself as a self-centered, narcissistic woman with very little of the honest look at oneself that makes most memoirs worth reading. She glosses over the murder of Ken’s second wife and, aside from saying she believes him, evinces zero curiosity about what happened to her. She seems to miss how the killing affected Ken’s daughter, Jordan --- seeing the girl, who is 19 when they first meet, as merely a backdrop, her alcoholism an inconvenience, her time with her father an affront. Glenda similarly resents Abby, Ken’s sister, for wanting to spend time with her brother. In short, Glenda appears to dismiss or resent anyone whose life doesn’t revolve around her. And while in the beginning of the book she incessantly and tediously tells us about her and Ken’s great love, it isn’t until Ken gets sick that we actually come across any evidence of that love in action.
Glenda seems to have anticipated criticism; the book jacket features a kind of “ah, shucks” letter from her in which she deflects responsibility for its flaws. “I didn’t write with any intention of publishing my story,” she says. If she had pushed for a little more honesty, a little more introspection and a little more showing instead of telling in the first part, it would have made the entire book worthy of its very worthwhile, and indeed moving, finale.
For Glenda, at the tragic end of her marriage to Ken, is not only older and wiser, as one would expect, but also a more compassionate, self-aware person. Marriage has softened her edges, and a tragedy over which she can exert no control appears to have made her less judgmental of others in her life. Pre-tragedy Glenda seems to have no thought for people except in relation to herself; the Glenda who is tending her sick husband is aware of her own impatience and repressed rage.
Motherhood, similarly, has given her perspective. First, on her own mother, whose self-absorption Glenda comes to see as damaging to herself as a child and determines not to inflict this on her own children. Second, on Ken's daughter Jordan, who tragically lost her own mother and, as Ken nears the end, becomes a mother herself. Even Ken's sister Abby, who has lost her son not through death but through his adoption of religious zealotry, becomes an object of compassion rather than disdain and jealousy, as Ken's illness progresses.
In adopting the metaphor "The Geography of Love" to describe her journey of the soul, Glenda Burgess ultimately presents a powerful travelogue of her journey from a lonely single woman longing for love, with no models of how loving, whole families work, to a caring wife, mother, daughter and in-law who, when the chips are down, finds depths in herself she never knew she had.
It may not have been the journey she intended to take, but it got her where she needed to go.
Reviewed by Pat Morris on May 3, 2011