A Review of Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t
October 9, 2015 § 2 Comments
Lovers of the memoir genre will take pleasure in Talbot’s simple and highly addictive The Way We Weren’t. Addictive not because of the moments she describes from her struggle with alcohol, but because the reader is always close beside her, anxious to learn, Where does she go next?
Talbot leads the reader through the seven different states she has lived in over the past fifteen years in seven distinct sections. As she looks back at each locale, she remaps the meaning these places and memories hold for her and her daughter Indie.
When Talbot discusses her problem with wine, she does so like a poet sommelier, using a wine list, each glass or bottle describing a story, followed by a precise description: ”This offering is crisp,” she writes, “with hints of wet stone and yellowed pages.”
When she wants to examine metaphor, character, conflict, or form, she presents a mock-syllabus, a hyper-personal rubric for a class she covers in “The Professor of Longing,” a chapter that serves as the fulcrum of the book. “We’ll discuss stories, essays, and poems that remind me of my most recent misgivings, the words underlining my past,” she writes.
In a syllabus entry on Charlotte Gilman’s “Yellow Wallpaper,” Talbot writes: “Gilman admitted to altering her experience in her story, using ‘embellishments and additions, to carry out the ideal.’” So, it’s no surprise that Talbot has done the same. In an interview with Marcia Aldrich in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Talbot explains: “I’ve never considered the ‘I’ in my work to be who I am. When I craft a persona on the page, it’s as if I’m turning up the volume on a particular emotion or aspect of my self. It’s a version of me, but it’s not me.”
“The Professor of Longing” is a chapter that can and has stood alone as an essay, yet is more powerful once you read Talbot’s story in its entirety.
After her syllabus, in the next chapter, the tone—the volume of her chosen persona—changes. It’s as though Talbot gets up, walks into the other room, takes out a bottle of Chardonnay, looks out the window, and silently performs a one-woman show.
“Reader, I can’t stop…,” she writes, looking back, looking forward, looking for something. Toward the end, we see how far Talbot has come with her daughter but how little has changed. She is always a single mom. She is always alone. When she tries to call Kenny, knowing he’s no longer there, her loneliness echoes with each ring.
In the second-person section of her memoir, Talbot shares the stage with Kenny. We hear him tell her not to leave. We see him come into the story like a silent shadow, sometimes drinking or playing guitar. Talbot shows us the letter Kenny wrote requesting an amendment to the court order for child support, where he finally speaks, but only to say, “I don’t feel like I should pay alimony because I’m not part of this child’s life.” In these scenes—where Kenny becomes the main character—we hear the story told in his voice, his point-of-view—one that directly competes with Talbot’s. He has become another villain, competing with her other antagonists: loneliness and addiction.
Talbot, a poet as well as a memoirist, has a remarkable gift for language, and by the end of The Way We Weren’t, the reader might feel herself gripping the book not only to see where Talbot and her daughter Indie end up (spoiler alert—she moves once more after the book is published) but also to eat up her delectable prose.
Patri Hadad is the managing editor of New Ohio Review.