Tuesday, February 1, 2011
Book Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress
I knew I had to read Mennonite in a Little Black Dress as soon as I read the synopsis on the back of the book and saw a quote from Elizabeth Gilbert praising the book on its cover. I bought it as a Christmas gift for my little sister and managed to restrain myself and not read it before giving it to her. I then put myself on the hold list at the library to get it. Then I waited. And waited. And waited a little more. Then, the day before we're leaving for our trip to Florida it came in. I checked it out for my week (someone was waiting behind me for it so I had to read fast) and went on vacation.
The book is a memoir by Rhoda Janzen (apparently since married but still a fan of red lipstick), an English professor at Hope College which is a small liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. The book leads off with her botched hysterectomy that requires about 6 months of recovery. This is followed up with a serious car accident and her husband leaving her for a man named Bob who he met on Gay.com. This all happens in the first fifteen pages of the book. With all that initial drama, I wondered how could the rest of the book live up to those first pages?
The other 240-ish pages follow her going home to spend time with her Mennonite family after her svelte red headed friend Carla (she repeatedly says in the book that this is how Carla wanted to be credited) convinces her she should write some of her adventures down. The book is a mixture of old family memories, current family happenings, and reflections about her divorce all mushed into one laugh out loud extravaganza. Examples of what is included in this book are childhood family camping trips (complete with the car sick ride on the way there), commentary on a Christmas dinner with her sister in law who insists on asking every inappropriate question you can imagine about her divorce, a list of embarrassing things that your mother may pack in your lunch to take to school as a child if you're Mennonite (borscht!), riding on a motorcycle with a much younger Mennonite man (please let this be the guy she married!), and several episodes about hair---head hair that looks like a nest, girl part hair sticking out of bikinis, other hair.
What made this book so funny also made me wish for a little more cohesion and a bit more of the serious stuff too. Let me put it out there --- I laughed my ass off for this book. There. I said it. I want you to remember that before I write down anything else about the book. Okay---are you still remembering that I laughed so hard that my husband and my grandmother repeatedly asked me what was so funny? Moving on...
Because the author draws from so many different areas of her life and the book does not occur chronologically, the book seemed to jump all over the place at times. As far as the serious stuff goes, this woman's divorce was brutal. She goes in depth about the emotional abuse she endured as a result of his bipolar disorder. She also made a brief commentary about her husband being atheist and her knowing that he was bisexual going into the marriage. After reading the book, I really wished that she had talked a little bit more about her faith and how it was effected by being married to an atheist. Was it effected at all? How did her family react? In my opinion, it wasn't addressed enough in the book. But that topic is not funny...not funny at all. So perhaps she felt it didn't have a place in the funny book that svelte red headed Carla wanted her to write.
In the end, this book made me laugh (you got that people?), and by the end I felt that the author made some peace with the faith of her childhood. I would recommend it. I really hope she writes another book later that takes a serious look at her faith and how her life experiences have effected it. Funny or not, I'd be interested.