by Mary Karr
Review by Christian Perring on Mar 30th 2010
Lit tells Mary Karr's story of her life from her late teens to her forties: the time she started drinking heavily and managed to give it up. It is also the story of her marriage and its end, her becoming a mother, becoming a college professor, and of her converting from an aetheist to a practicing Roman Catholic. Karr has already described her childhood and early teen life in her previous memoirs, so we know in detail the stresses and traumas that set her up for dealing badly with life, and so it's no surprise that she became dependent on alcohol. It's much more surprising that she turned to religion. Her writing style, with short paragraphs and short chapters, makes the book especially readable. As with her previous memoirs, she has great skill with words, and so listening to her read her book on the unabridged audiobook is a great pleasure. While her reading lacks the expressiveness that a professional actor would bring, she still reads with conviction and is far from wooden. Having the author perform her own memoir also makes the listening experience more direct and intimate, since it feels more as if she is talking personally to the listener about her life.
The theme of Karr's struggle with alcohol is in itself a standard and familiar one. She works as a young poet, a difficult choice in the first place, and she marries another poet. They have a boy and the relationship becomes especially strained. She drinks to deal with the pain, but can't prevent herself from drinking too much, despite many attempts to do so. Her drinking gets worse and worse, and she eventually scares herself into joining AA. She meets people who tell her to find a higher power and pray, but she is very resistant to the idea, and does not have much of an idea about what a higher power could be. But she does start to pray, on her knees, and she comes to find prayer useful. Gradually, her hostility toward religion reduces, and turning toward God comes to feel more natural to her. This change in her reaction toward religion seems to play a major role in helping her keep sober.
For readers of Karr's previous memoirs, her evolving relationship with her mother will be especially interesting. Her mother was at points psychotic and abusive, yet Karr seems to let go of her anger and manages to establish a fairly healthy relationship with her, even though her mother cannot be much help to her as she goes through alcoholism and a failing marriage. The ability to overcome her childhood resentment is a testament to something: maybe it is an innate disposition to forgive, maybe it is all the psychotherapy she has done, or possibly it is to do with her religious faith, but she is able to interact with her mother in a healthy way. By the end of her book, which closes with her mother's death, she is able to mourn without terrible complication.
· Mary Karr interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR, and and extract from the book
· Publisher's website: browse the book
· Review of The Liars' Club
· Review of Cherry
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York