A Review of Melissa Matthewson’s Tracing the Desire Line

September 14, 2020 § 2 Comments


By Elizabeth Fiala

Melissa Matthewson in this essay collection, Tracing the Desire Line, examines her mid-thirties as she longs for intimacy outside her fourteen-year marriage. Her husband, a hard-working farmer, finds it difficult to accept Matthewson’s sudden longing for others. Thus, this book centers around conflicts that arise from the husband’s mixed feelings about an open marriage and Matthewson’s conflicted feelings about being a dutiful wife and mother on a rural Oregon farm.

I have never been married nor do I have children or live in a rural setting; yet, I resonate with Matthewson’s feelings. As a single woman, I can date whoever I want, go where I want, and do what I want without permission. Yet, I found myself, like Matthewson, desiring to be more than just a wife, mother, and daughter. As a woman in my thirties, going back to college to earn a master’s degree, while many of my peers are creating families, I want to be identified outside of the stark confines and expectations of marriage and motherhood.

Through Matthewson’s collection, ranging from memoir and lyrical essays to confessional letters and prose poems, the reader is treated to a no-holds-barred exploration of desire, place, and autonomy. Tracing the Desire Line is organized linearly into parts (the before, during, and after of the open marriage), though there are plenty of experimental essays and prose that meander meditatively, exploring motherhood, sex, and nature. Perhaps most surprising is Matthewson’s role as a pirate radio DJ. Her writing about radio and seducing her first lover (with her husband’s reluctant blessing) via an on-air playlist could be a book itself.

Radio is all intimacy and wildness through the airwaves. It becomes a unique outlet for Matthewson’s desire. She writes, “How to explain the ways radio filled me: the nuance of desire, of waves and vibration, both sound and longing, the need to create a charge of want, to stretch heat and flush over the surge of radio.” Is there a Spotify playlist for that?

Pirate radio DJ, like so many of Matthewson’s selves explored here, pushes against her role of  “farmer’s wife” and a woman with a husband. In “On Identity: The Farmer’s Wife, Etc.,” Matthewson ruminates on a visitor’s remark: “She called me the farmer’s wife, my identity defined by my husband. I thought, I am not just one story. I’m not just a farmer’s wife, though at times I guess that is what distinguishes me from the rest.” In many ways, Matthewson’s desire for intimacy outside of the marriage is entwined with a desire to know herself: “I’d always wrestled with the idea of self, searching for the peace of ‘This is who I am,’ though I knew I’d never find it.”

It is during a solo trip abroad, Matthewson realizes that in order to “be a free woman” and to truly know herself, “[she] must unlock from marriage.” Opening it becomes a manageable compromise—though not without guilt. Yet, this is not simply a desire of sex for sex’s sake, but a deeper need: a desire for autonomous identity. Thus, it makes these new lovers more layered and complicated.

The rural farm becomes a substantial character with the author’s achingly beautiful descriptions of the Oregon landscape and farm life. It’s the home grounds, as Matthewson calls it, that becomes a connecting point between the various players and their desires. She gravitates to the wildness of her land, writing, “These things are unruly—wasps, bees, dandelion, cotton, mustard, teasel. This weight of summer: the grasses overrun with seed. I haunt the apple trees. In a canoe, I drift.” This duality of nature that she explores, its quaint fields and summer wildfires, mirrors Matthewson’s own duality: her need for stability (a monogamous life with her husband) versus her ache for change (an Edna St. Vincent Millay appetite for more). I couldn’t help but associate this with the book’s cover of a forested path, starting in sunlight and leading around the bend into unknown, untraveled territory.

Matthewson’s writing pulses raw, full of wanting—at times almost harried and frenetic,  like someone pacing, chain-smoking in the summer night air. It was hard for me to breathe while reading her words, and readers of Tracing the Desire Line may find themselves turning back and re-digesting morsels like this one:

All I wanted to do was dance to the heavy guitars or kiss a man I didn’t know, or at least, let one desire me, let one strip off my brown jacket in the woods behind the house, let the pine needles tangle in my hair, let the mushrooms stain my lace skirt even though it was cold, even though it was November, even though I was married, even though I’d get sick, I didn’t care, he would strip my brown jacket, maybe pull up my shirt to the cold and fulfill that untouched place most men want to go, but can’t, because there is no way a man can every fully know what a woman holds inside her; it’s so deep it burns even into the morning when the light has washed away all dreams, sins, impossibilities.

Like the wild territory that Matthewson calls home, desire shifts, changes, and morphs with new meaning. The prose’s balance between contemplation and tension keeps the reader alert and the pages turning—this is Tracing the Desire Line’s unique charm.

As I followed the author’s journey and the trepidations that threatened her marriage, I found myself wondering whether or not Matthewson’s marriage or her hard-sought identity would win out. Can she possibly have both, or are they doomed to incompatibility? Can a woman be more than the roles society allows?

As to the ending, you’ll have to discover that for yourself. However, if Tracing the Desire Line has taught me anything, it’s that change through destruction sometimes brings new and better growth…sometimes more sustaining. Matthewson’s path through desire, like a forest fire, blazed hot. Reading about her journey makes me feel a little less alone and a lot less foolish as I follow my own passions and truths. In Matthewson, I found a kindred spirit, and isn’t that what we all desire most?

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Elizabeth Fiala is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. When not busy battling against the squash beetles in her garden, she enjoys stress-knitting after midnight and falling asleep to true crime podcasts.

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