I only started reading Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home, because it was free; an editor sent it to me to review. First impressions weren't good. The book screamed Chick Lit. The cover had a picture of legs and black pumps. The first chapter was unreasonably chipper. I hate Chick Lit.
Chick Lit has a predictable formula. Girl has a lumpy butt, falls for the wrong guy, but ends up in a passionate embrace with the right guy, who loves her lumpy butt and all.
Rhoda Janzen starts off writing a Chick Lit book. She makes jokes about a series of tragedies that befall her. She gets cancer and has to have her uterus removed. During the operation, the surgeon accidentally cuts open her bladder and she needs a pee bag for a few months. Then her husband of fifteen years leaves her for a guy that he met on Gay.com. As she's emotionally recovering from that shocker, a drunk teenager plows into her car and breaks a bunch of her bones.
Those events are not funny and her efforts to turn them into a joke are a little off putting. I mean, I also had a surgeon accidentally puncture my bladder, and I can tell you that there's nothing funny about a pee bag, even if you call it a pee-bag.
Yet I kept reading, because of the pee-bag. The author and I had many things in common in addition to the pee-bag. We're both academics in our mid-40s. Her husband had mental health issues and switched teams; in my case, it was a boyfriend. She says that she was attracted to men who were smart rather than nice; I broke that nasty habit when I was thirty. She follows her husband to the University of Chicago where he was studying Political Theory; I must have missed him by a year or two.
I'm glad that I muscled past the first chapter, because this book is so much more than Chick Lit. It's actually a really, good book about going home after tragedy. After the car crash, she takes a sabbatical year and goes back home to her family to lick her wounds and write a book.
Janzen writes about growing up Mennonite. Surprisingly, many of her experiences aren't that different from growing up Catholic. In some ways, conservative Catholics are Mennonites, but with booze and a pope. The humiliations of wearing the wrong clothes to school and enduring sadistic elementary school teachers are universal growing pains that everyone can relate to.
During her trip back home, Janzen comes to terms with her upbringing. She recognizes that her mother, although eccentric and embarrassing, is a truly good person. She gradually admits to the readers, and maybe to herself, that her ex-husband had been slowly torturing her over the years, even before he ran off with Bob. She finds beauty in what she rejected.
There is very little about academic life in this book, but she throw out some real puzzlers for those who have lived that life. She name drops some shoe brands a couple of times in the book, a prerequisite of all Chick Lit books, but how the hell does an academic afford Manolos or Prada? Maybe she chose shoes over food, a respectable choice, but she doesn't explain.
The writing is fabulous. Each chapter could be a stand-alone essay about virtue, acceptance, or family love.
Janzen's book is most certainly not Chick Lit. Janzen doesn't end up in the arms of Mr. Right, but she does end up loving the Right Family.
She discusses her book in this video.