OCTOBER 4, 2017
I FIRST BECAME a fan of Andrea Jarrell’s writing after I read her in the “Modern Love” section of The New York Times. In an essay called “A Measure of Desire” (included in her new book, I’m the One Who Got Away), Jarrell, a wife in her late 30s and a mother of young children, with a lackluster sex life, confesses to a friend she’s been checking out other women, wondering if her husband might prefer them. “What about your desire?” asks her friend. “Don’t you deserve sex?” This got my attention: not the idea that married sex can wane, but that we think it’s our role to keep our men happy. But what about what women want? What about the female gaze? Jarrell rethinks her attitude and, fortunately for her husband, what she winds up wanting is him.
Desire, the state of being desirable, shows up as a topic throughout this debut collection, which is a memoir in essays — each stand-alone, each rendered in beautiful detail — that cover events from Jarrell’s childhood with a single mother to her life as a wife and mother herself. The way she moves around to visit various versions of the person she was reminded me of a line from Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook.” “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” writes Didion,
whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.
As Jarrell revisits incidents that range from awkward to frightening to joyful in this unconventional memoir, she, too, might have had this line in mind, especially in the opening essay, “Just We Two,” when the girl she used to be comes “hammering.” The piece opens with the murder of a young single mother in her Maine community. Jarrell is devastated by the news, even though she wasn’t close to the victim.
Eventually, all the cues from my memories about why her murder hit me so hard began to glimmer like flagstones on a moonlit path. A path that paved the way, inevitably, back to my mother. As I connected those dots, my sorrow over Susannah’s death revealed what I was only beginning to realize — how desperate I was to escape my mother’s choices and the life I feared I was destined to live.
At 16, Jarrell’s mother married her father, dropped out of school, and left home to eventually settle in Las Vegas. But when her husband turned out to be a jealous, abusive alcoholic, she fled with the baby, changed their names, and started a new life in hiding in Los Angeles. This is where Jarrell’s memoir begins; shaken into awareness by another woman’s tragedy, she realizes that the story of her parents continues to affect who she is and to impact her ability to be vulnerable or trusting in love. From here, she fearlessly looks back on her experience — on the people she used to be — with wide-eyed curiosity, kindness, and honesty.
The book is organized in three sections. Part I covers stories of her earliest years. This is where Jarrell’s obsession with desirability begins. Throughout her childhood, she is aware of her mother’s beauty and the effect it has on men, particularly the jealousy it provokes in her father. As she becomes an adolescent, Jarrell compares her appearance to her mother’s. But just when you think you know what it is exactly that Jarrell has to overcome, her father appears, in “Five Flashes of Teeth.” After 16 years, he has tracked down his wife and daughter and wants to be part of their lives.
In Part II of the book, Jarrell no longer lives with her mother: she is on her own, making her own mistakes. We meet Andrea the college student, the girlfriend, the newlywed, and the wannabe writer. In these four essays, Jarrell travels to different landscapes and forms friendships and romantic relationships, still under the shadow of her former life, still in fear that she will repeat her mother’s mistakes — falling for the wrong guy, not reaching her full potential — still trying to figure out what it is she herself wants. Even so, she is eager to recreate the type of strong bond she’s always had with her mother — and the competition, too. For instance, in “Makeshift Twins,” she recounts her changing friendship with a college roommate:
A rivalry with Liz had begun to burn in me. I weighed my looks and talents against hers the way I had compared myself to my mother when I was growing up. The attention of others was my barometer. I looked for proof that people thought I was more than Liz’s sidekick.
In “Saviors,” Jarrell enters a relationship with Wes, a chef living in Santa Fe, who was the son of her creative writing teacher. Shortly after they meet, she relocates to be with him. When things don’t work out for him at work, they move to his hometown of Austin and squat at his friend’s house. One night, they are asked to leave so that the couple housing them can engage in procreative sex. They go for a drive. This, by the way, is another reason to recommend this book — Jarrell’s mastery of images. Here her writing is at once panoramic and intimate:
The road took us beyond the subdivisions to nothing, nothing but rolling hills and darkening lakes. All of a sudden through the car window, one of those breath-catching spots appeared like a painting—a slick glassy blue beyond smooth white rocks. The kind of view that begs you to stop being you and disappear right into it.
One’s 20s are a time when ambition can get sidelined by relationships, the need for love outweighing the need for success. But for Jarrell, this period is further complicated by her writing teacher’s intentional interference. As it turns out, the teacher has chosen Jarrell for Wes in the hopes that her young student will “fix” him. The success of Jarrell’s work seems to hinge on the success of the relationship. “And so, from the beginning, Wes and my potential as a writer mingled incestuously.”
In the essays in last section of the book, Jarrell finally comes into her own. By this time, she is finished comparing herself to her mother and to other women. With menopause and the “empty nest” on the horizon, she thinks back on her high school years, to her changing body and growing desires: “Not wanting to risk the judgment of others, I sat on the sidelines hungry for a taste of the grown-up things I longed to do — waiting for the day when I would finally take myself out for a spin.” Now, finally, that’s what she’s doing, with a sense of wonder and control.
Part III is also the shortest section, as if to suggest that the final act is yet unfinished.
Jarrell looks to the future with optimism and enthusiasm. In “Ripe,” she and her husband sneak in some daytime sex while the house is empty. She knows that soon the children will be gone for good, living lives of their own. What will her life look like then? “Gazing into my husband’s eyes, I push such worries from my mind. Determined to seize this season and savor it, I run my hand along his thigh.”
But if Jarrell is finally downright happy, it’s by no stroke of luck she’s arrived at this place. Rather, it’s the very process of returning to the past that has brought her to this sense of contentment. All along the way, she has treated each of her former selves with tenderness, embracing them tightly, then letting them go. In I’m the One Who Got Away, Jarrell has composed a collage of the people she used to be, to create a portrait of the woman she is — self-aware and unafraid. She gives the rest of us approaching our 50s hope that the best is yet to come.
Susan Barr-Toman is the author of the novel When Love Was Clean Underwear. Her work has appeared in Watershed Review, r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal, and the Philadelphia City Paper, among others.