Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Mennonite in a Little Black Dress"

Our book club met last night to discuss our latest read. Although we did have criticisms, in general we enjoyed the book.

I do not read memoirs. I'm an avid reader of fiction, and on occasion nonfiction. So I kept expecting the usual fiction plot points as I was reading which, of course, never arrived.

So -- author Rhoda Janzen was raised in California in a Mennonite family. She pursued an education, academic career, and marriage outside the Mennonite community. When her husband left her for a gay man that he'd met online, and following a devastating car accident, Ms. Janzen returned to her parent's home to recuperate. The memoir addresses how she adjusted to returning to the Mennonite culture as well as an examination of her childhood and failed marriage.

Ms. Janzen places much emphasis on being the outsider during her school years among her more "worldly" classmates. There were her plain, hand-me-down clothes and unusual lunches, not to mention forbidden activities such as watching television and dancing. However, none of us found her childhood to be that much different than our own. Ms. Janzen's oddly appearing and smelling lunches reminded me of My Big Fat Greek Wedding when Nia Vardalos brought Greek dishes to school. Any child from an ethnic, racial, or religious minority will feel like he or she doesn't fit in. Any child who wears hand-me-downs will cringe in ill-fitting outfits and yearn for new clothes. And one doesn't have to be Mennonite to miss out on the "social norms." In my own household during the 1950s we didn't have a television in the house until my teachers began giving assignments to watch certain programs (under the assumption that everyone had a TV). And every child/teenager is embarrassed by their parents at some point if not most of their youth.

Ms. Janzen's tone seemed contrived at the beginning of the book, as if she was straining for a flip, Sex and the City style of delivery. She also included some episodes regarding bodily functions and private parts that (with perhaps one exception) seemed totally unnecessary to us. At 43, the author seemed like she was still straining with adolescent rebellion against her upbringing. These particular episodes were used to illustrate the character of family members, but we suspected she could have had the same results with other examples.

As the book progressed, we learned the facts of Ms. Janzen's marriage. I was reminded of the appeals that I dealt with in my last job. The complainant described the situation and demanded a fix. I researched the incident to complete the facts and determine what, if anything, we could do for the person. Oh the details the complainants left out when filing their appeals!! My research often revealed that a sad story of ill advice was in reality an incident of laziness and/or stupidity.

We learned that Ms. Janzen had been dazzled by Nick's good looks and intellect. She was naive and, having come from a culture that was suspicious of higher education, she longed for someone who shared her academic pursuits. She knew Nick was bisexual before she married him (he'd been with a man before the woman who preceded Ms. Janzen). He was manic depressive and verbally abusive. He refused to take his medication, ruined them financially, and humiliated her in private while presenting the picture of a perfect match among their friends. In the end, despite Nick's horrible treatment of Rhoda, he left her.

Ms. Janzen stated she still would have married Nick if she could go back and do it over again. She loved him with all her heart. My personal feeling was that she loved the idea of Nick. Rhoda had grown up in a sheltered environment with little exposure to the "real world" and all the weirdness it contains. And the only examples she had of marriage were within the Mennonite community -- Rhoda had no idea that she could leave her dysfunctional marriage. I think she married the man she wanted Nick to be, not the man he was. Although he had his good points. But Rhoda withstood far more verbal abuse and financial ruin than she should have. Which only made her human -- since many of us remain with the familiar long after we should have left, since the unknown can be frightening.

In the end we believed Rhoda came to awareness and maturity to appreciate that her parents and brothers were the way they were meant to be. She was who she was because of her upbringing and the love and acceptance of her family. The pendulum had swung back to the center. Whether the offspring struggle to meet family expectations or rebel against them, life is a process of discovery to determine who we really are. There is no time limit for this process. The longing for that elusive something that will bring each of us fulfillment can continue throughout our lives.

Our next selection for the January book club meeting is The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. It is a multi-generational mystery that travels between historical periods in Great Britain and Australia.


Akhal-Eventer said...

Sounds like an interesting book anyways! I like your point about the author loving the IDEA of her ex-husband.... I find that's a common component to many relationships, and its often only after they are over that people wake up to what was really being exchanged!!

I myself can relate a bit to the author's "different" upbringing.... my family lived in a cabin in the woods and didn't have running water or electricity until I was 8 years old.... and that was in 1989! My dad used to run a record player off the battery of his pick=up truck s that my siblings and I could listen to Michael Jackson's Thriller album on the record player!

I think no matter what country you live in, what culture you are born into, and during what time period... similarities abound!

In any case.... I find religions fascinating, though i am not religious myself.... so i was interested to read your review. Thanks!

gowestferalwoman said...

I think it can be the authors own concept of what is different and how they communicate that which becomes the story, rather then the difference itself. Although when you throw religion and expectations into the mix, then its whole different ball of wax.

Sounds interesting, the next read!