This is why I just devoured her book, Poor Your Soul, like my life depended on it.
The truth is that sometimes I feel as if I need to apologize for liking memoir. It’s often criticized as nothing more than a navel-gazing exercise. Even right here, I’m still doing it. Because actually, I don’t just like memoir, I adore it.
Ptacin’s book goes a long way in explaining why. If the writer has flair and can turn a sweet phrase, it’s engaging. If she can bring a reader along on a journey that doesn’t resemble her own and yet make her feel as if she’s taking the lumps and sharing the triumphs, it’s an exquisite experience. If it’s done well, memoir is courageous.
This is a writer who achieves all of the above in her deftly layered account of an excruciating period in her life, her family’s life. We learn from the book jacket that Mira gets pregnant at age 28, gets engaged to the father, and winds up in an unthinkable situation – the child has no chance of survival outside the womb. Woven into her storytelling is rich context in the form of loving but complex family relationships, the squaring of childhood religious/spiritual beliefs with adult realities, the grief of losing a teen-aged brother to the whims of a drunk driver, and an ever evolving self-perception that veers from wild exploration to self-flagellation.
Trust me when I say that if you pick up this book knowing all of the above, nothing will be spoiled in the reading. A summary cannot do it justice.
Poor Your Soul was delivered to my mailbox on a Monday. I had ordered three books with a gift card I’d been given for Christmas. Truthfully, I was hoping one of the lighter ones would come first. I was in the mood for something jaunty.
But no, I ripped into the sturdy brown packaging and found Ptacin’s serious book. I knew it had a piercing quality when I ordered it. So much grief would be there. Since the death of a man I was wild about in 2012, I’ve learned to invite it in sometimes, the grief. It’s like I need to check in with it periodically. Occasionally I need to feel others’ pain so I can feel my own again.
I took the book’s arrival as divine timing. I could have set it aside, but I didn’t. I opened it, wondering as we do with all books if it would hook me. Wondering. Hoping. Maybe skeptical. I’m 54. I’ve never wanted kids. Could Ptacin pull me into a story about a 20-something woman and pregnancy?
Why yes, she can.
“We’re to believe big breasts are lovable and playful, little breasts are cute and sweet, breastfeeding is beautiful and natural, but what about swollen, leaking breasts with no baby to feed?” Ptacin writes in chapter one. “What good is a sad, broken machine?”
I ached for her almost out of the gate.
There is so much truth on these pages I could feel myself flinch at times, steeling myself from what she’s about to reveal. Because boy does she reveal. Not just her own thoughts, but those of people she loves deeply. The reader in me kept going to find out what happens next, but in between the writer in me just kept marveling at her bravery.
How is she sharing this? What is it about the way she’s structured the story that is giving it so much impact? Does she know how genuinely in her art she is? Did she run all this by her family in the process or show it to them upon completion? Is she aware how complete a picture of love she’s painting here, both marital and familial? Is the release of this book opening up wounds or helping soothe them?
Less than 48 hours after receiving Poor Your Soul, here I am writing about how it touched me. Lately the marketing types have latched on to the idea of story. It’s trendy to tap into “story.” I hope that doesn’t mean we’re becoming desensitized to its power. Good memoir is story on steroids. It’s an elixir, stirring a pot of dormant and fresh emotions within us.
“The question isn’t: When will I stop grieving?” Ptacin writes. “The question is: How do you keep on living?”
It turns out Mira Ptacin is going to be OK.