MAY 4, 2019
ANYONE WHO PUTS pen to paper knows how cumbersome writing can be. Words are clunky things: awkward, elusive, difficult to maneuver. The cadences we desire are often achieved at the expense of our intended meanings, and many long and tiresome hours of writing can — and do — frequently leave us with some achromatic mess of word goulash. One of the grand illusions of great writing is the appearance of effortlessness, a quality that Abbigail Rosewood often achieves in her debut novel, If I Had Two Lives.
Rosewood writes with humility, but without apology. Her talent for balancing elegance and clarity carries the reader with gorgeous description, while rarely indulging in unnecessary explanation. With precision and dexterity, Rosewood has woven together a tale of staggering artistry, devastation, compassion, and social awareness.
If I Had Two Lives maintains high emotional resonance with nimbleness and grace. Rosewood crafts her prose with just the right amount of lilt, showcasing a style that has the power to bear the heaviest topics with surprising ease. Each page is saturated with trauma in various forms: abuse, alienation, sexual assault, identity crises, codependence, emotional extortion, the haunting effects of neglect and abandonment. With such a weighty lineup, one might expect an exhausting and sometimes unbearably heavy read. However, quite the contrary, Rosewood’s work is imbued with a touch of lightness that gives readers a sensation more akin to gliding through a shared dream than reading a text.
If I Had Two Lives explores the universal need to belong from an oft-overlooked perspective — the dispossessed. More specifically, Rosewood invites the reader into the deeply personal and revelatory experience of a young woman who is raised in a state of dispossession, unwanted by family or homeland for no reason other than the geopolitical context into which she was birthed.
At age seven, the unnamed narrator is brought to a Vietnamese military encampment to live with her estranged mother, whom the narrator hasn’t seen since she was three years old. The traumas she experiences during this time in her life follow her into young adulthood. In her mid-20s, the narrator finds herself a lonely immigrant in New York City desperately trying to recreate two of the most significant relationships she’d had as a child in Vietnam. When the home she has longed for finally begins to take shape, tragedy strikes and forces the narrator to return to Vietnam in an effort to piece together an identity that she never really had in the first place.
The fracturing of the narrator’s life began well before the reader first meets her — even before her mother left her to be raised by her grandparents when she was still wetting the bed. It began when she experienced the first major loss in her life — the death of her father. We learn that the narrator is left to interpret this monumental devastation on her own, and in the process, she comes to see the death of her father and the flight of her mother as the same thing: abandonment. Even though we come to learn that the mother feels just as abandoned by her dead husband as the narrator, both are too focused on their own emptiness to find this potentially monumental point of connection. We can easily forgive the child for this oversight, but not the mother. That resentment for her lingers in the reader’s mind throughout the rest of the novel and plays an instrumental role in how we relate to the narrator.
The instability, neglect, and simple absence of the narrator’s parents forges an insatiable desire to find a tight, unconditional bond that she never received from her father or mother — someone she can hold so close that she can’t tell where she ends and her friend begins. Her efforts, however, are entangled with insecurity like a tapeworm spun into a bowl of linguini. The narrator’s codependence is brilliantly clear even though it is never labeled as such, and this is one of Rosewood’s greatest accomplishments in the narrative.
The narrator is developed so effectively that the reader is more likely to empathize with her than question her often coercive or self-sabotaging actions. Some people use their past mistakes as opportunities for growth, but Rosewood’s narrator, now a young adult, has learned from her past how to better manipulate relationships to her advantage. This sounds villainous, and in fact it is from time to time, but the care and precision taken in building the narrator’s character reveals a life for which the reader is more prone to feel forgiveness rather than judgment.
The narrator longs for close kinship the way someone born without limbs might desire arms and legs: having no experience of the desired object intensifies rather than diminishes the desire. This is strikingly clear as the reader watches the narrator grow into sexual maturity in isolation. The confusion she experiences yields a dysfunctional sexual paradigm, as well as the sexualization of father figures. This, in turn, leads her into dangerous and heartbreaking situations.
For the narrator, there is no love without trauma, no kinship without brokenness. Years later, when she is living in New York, she finally finds a friend who reminds her of the little girl with whom she bonded at the camp. The same dysfunctional impulses that were present in her childhood resurface, and we get an internal glimpse of the logic of this dysfunction while the narrator reflects on her new friendship:
I was drawn to her because she was my walking memory, because she radiated an inevitable tragedy, because she made me devoted to her, and because I was going to abandon her. What I learned over the years — abandonment was love’s destiny … I wanted her to stay weak so we could be strong together.
In Rosewood’s novel, trauma is more than a passing occurrence. It lingers, informs, instructs, taunts, even condoles from time to time, and trauma incites actions that breed more trauma. Love and pathos are weapons that the narrator uses when she feels her relationships deteriorating, and, perhaps not surprisingly, these weapons that are intended to save her relationships ultimately end up destroying them.
A decade passes between the time we see the narrator leave Vietnam and when we rejoin her in New York, but the childhood trauma and her undaunted compulsion to please her mother have survived with her. We find the narrator in a season of isolation and uncertainty, the residual but no less present fear of abandonment so severe, we learn, that she has been passed between households of extended family members and acquaintances who can’t stand sharing a roof with her. Chaotic behavior disguises wounds that will never heal and the indomitable craving for a kinship, a family, and a homeland.
The narrator grasps at familiarity in a perpetually alien world. She obsessively scours the web for any information she can find about her mother, and so follows a man home from the subway because he resembles the beloved soldier from her youth. New characters with recognizable traits emerge as the narrator tries to build some semblance of familiarity in her life. While thinking about the bond she is forming with a new friend in New York, the narrator says, “To love someone, perhaps, was not about what you could give her, but a way to remedy your loss.” The beauty of this line is in its sincere relatability. The great loves in our lives often give us a sense of wholeness and purpose. The potential danger that ingeniously surfaces in the narrator’s psyche, however, is the difference between a healthy relationship and a codependent one — the latter will never serve the needs of more than one person. The narrator’s loneliness is about more than finding someone who will remedy her loss; it is also inextricable from her identity as an immigrant.
I was used to solitude, not only from it being my constant condition as a child but also because it was a component as essential as breath to migration. Someone on the move must be ready to lose everything that is important to him. They must accept that being alone is not a state that can be overcome by making friends, learning their friends’ language, mastering their expressions of love, fear, anger. Solitude is the result of cutting themselves free from the umbilical cord that connects them to the womb of their motherland.
Migration, she explains, is not always a simple matter of moving from a “bad” situation to a “good” one, as we might assume if our only experience with immigration is the refugee crisis that has been in the news. Instead, Rosewood’s narrative illustrates with sharp luminosity that immigration requires a willful and often painful sacrifice of important parts of people’s lives and identities; loss and solitude are often the necessary price of that experience.
With a novel — especially a debut — that is about the experience of an immigrant, there may be a temptation to assume that the story is autobiographical. No doubt, Rosewood will likely face questions about how much of this story actually happened to her. But before we concern ourselves with autobiographical questions, let’s acknowledge that Rosewood’s novel is a powerful work of fiction. We would also be wise to refrain from assuming that this novel, or any other novel about an immigrant’s experience, is a representation of the immigrant experience — there are as many immigration stories as there are immigrants.
One final observation is worth sharing: Rosewood closes her novel on a redemptive note that never could have transpired without the trauma that spun the narrator’s life out of control in the first place. Brokenness is an opportunity, not a life sentence. The difference comes in part from learning to recognize the broken pieces of others and finding where your pieces fit together, or at least fit well enough. The mosaic that reveals itself over time may not be perfect, but it is none the less beautiful. In this way, Rosewood illustrates how our stories of pain become shared dreams of a future where loneliness is conquered not by hiding our suffering, but by embracing our brokenness together.
If I Had Two Lives is a work of radiance, and part of the excitement of the book’s release is the introduction of an author who surely has a long and successful career ahead of her. Rosewood has built a refreshing bildungsroman in which the protagonist — rather than simply finding the answers to life’s hard questions — discovers personal empowerment in a world that remains unfamiliar and broken, and where living with life’s hard questions is more enlightening than having all the answers.