For #WomensHistoryMonth, here are three memoirs that portray a range of women’s lives, from mid-century summers in Brittany, to pre-9/11 ambitions of a young woman, to growing up motherless with a gay father in 1970s San Francisco.
The Oysters of Locmariaquer, by Eleanor Clark
The Oysters of Locmariaquer (first published in 1964) is not a memoir per see, and yet it reads as one. The book is a biography of a place, containing history, science, literature, oyster cultivation, habitat, and the
local life, which at the time of the book’s writing, was caught between the old ways and the new—it’s also a document of the Clark’s summers in Brittany, with her husband, Robert Penn Warren, and their children.
Clark seems to know virtually everything about this corner of northwestern France, the Celtic peninsula where Bretons have cultivated oysters for centuries—starting with a variety called Belon, or les plattes. You may not have heard of the famed oysters of Brittany, but they’re on the Smithsonian’s list of 1000 Things You Should Eat Before You Die.
Clark’s collagist style never quite places her at the center of her narrative, whether as a central actor or a minor player—never once does Clark cast herself in that role. There’s not one “I” in The Oysters of Locmariaquer. Though there’s no need. Clark is present in every line. Read the full review here.
My Misspent Youth: Essays, by Meghan Daum
The essays in My Misspent Youth (2001) offer what Ira Glass called “a clarity and intensity that just makes you feel awake.”
The title essay, which first appeared in the New Yorker, centers not so much on the coming-of-age follies of Daum’s youth, but on the realities that plague her when she finally arrives in the Shangri-La of her imagination, Manhattan. The thrill of arrival and personal edification in living in a place you’ve always dreamed of is covered as well in Life Would Be Perfect. Here though, the focus is less on the ineffable pull of certain domiciles and on the title’s literal meaning: the level of debt the author accrues working a low-paying editorial job and living in New York City. Read my full review here.
Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, by Alysia Abbott
Raised motherless by a young, talented, and emotionally vulnerable man—the artist, poet, editor, and activist Steven Abbott—yet Alysia Abbott never portrays herself as a victim of her father’s shortcomings. Instead, in Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father (2013), she sheds light on her own transgressions. The clear-eyed account and equitable tone keep the narrative both generous and engaging, and produces a memoir that reads both as a document of the time and a personal account of a daughter’s “mistakes,” ones for which she feels culpable—judging her father for his appearance and behavior and feeling ashamed because he is gay.
It’s impossible not to feel a sense of worry for the girl left at home with strangers, or sometimes alone, and this tension drives the account’s early years. A motherless girl, like a fatherless son, is vulnerable in a particular and tender way, and Abbott clearly shows their mix of difficulty and freedom. Read the full review here, and read about Fairyland, the new feature film, here.