The friendly folks at Henry Holt sent me a review copy of Rhoda Janzen's Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I received the book free, but no other compensation.
Laura at 11D says that Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is an impressive book because it appears to start off as a chick lit memoir about the search for Mr. Right, but turns out to be an ode to a daughter's coming home to the Right Family. If you're not usually into books with photos of high-heeled shoes on the cover, think again about this one: it's much less a story about a woman and her wardrobe than the story of a woman and her childhood and a woman and her parents. Rhoda Janzen, whose sudden divorce and subsequent car accident leads her to head half way across the country to spend several months living at home with her (Mennonite) parents, tells a story about going home and growin up.
At times, she's laugh-out-loud funny (anecdotes about traveling with her siblings on family vacations, going out shopping with a pee bag taped to her leg, and arguing with her mother about whether it's better to date a preacher or a pothead made this a bad choice for a book to read while a child was trying to fall asleep on top of me). At other times, she's serious and tender (an anecdote about her first Thanksgiving away from home, when she and her sister raise their voices in traditional Mennonite song before eating, is just lovely). Some times, as Laura notes, she's elusive: she's an academic, but I didn't always recognize my academic life in hers. She seems to have a bit more money than many academics I know in English departments.
Janzen is a poet, and this is her first turn toward memoir. I thought the book could have been edited more tightly--I'm trying to put my finger on just what it is about it that made me connect with her up front. I want to like Janzen more. We should have a lot in common--as Laura points out, growing up Mennonite Brethren is not that different from growing up in a conservative Catholic community, and I, too, had arguments with my parents about unstylish clothing that they valued for its modesty. But somehow, I wanted something a little bit more from Janzen's memoir....but as I try to describe what that is, I can't. I wanted to know a bit more about the marraige whose failure opens the memoir (it turns out later that she and her ex husband actually divorced twice, but there's nothing in the text to help us understand what drew her to him so repeatedly). I wanted to know a bit more about her academic experiences as she juggled the personal turmoil. There are more stories there, for sure.
But what is there is pretty interesting. So if you're looking for a memoir this season, consider this.