Sunday, September 25, 2011

On Matters of Necessity: A Review of Necessary Sins


There is a point where loved ones, once removed from the cumbersome stresses of life, appear in memory as innocent, guileless ghosts we were blessed to have known: as angels. Such is as they appear in Necessary Sins. Death is deceptive like that. Death is forgiving in a way memoir, or the reading of memoir, is not. Lynn Darling’s Necessary Sins introduces a not-so young woman and her pursuits of a not-so single man. Darling portrays young Lynn as a college girl curious about sex and life; and her position in both. Perhaps she is a late bloomer. Something—her breasts, her sense of self, her appetite—develops and gone are the vestiges of youth. Though Darling doesn’t seem to know that. An insecure Darling graduates from Harvard but not from the collegiate lifestyle as she tumbles from one bed to the other well in to her late twenties. Her exploits in to sexual and social identity seem to last well beyond the time self exploration is expected. Yet, Darling curiously chooses to dismiss her actions as a sort of rite of passage: she confuses choice with youth.
As a not-so young woman, her conquests include the accomplished and the dangerous. As an inquisitive Washington Post writer who seems to question her own worth more than anything else, she eventually pursues Lee Lescaze. Darling portrays Lescaze as an innocent, though willing, bystander in his own seduction. The seduction is lingering, or as slow as seduction can be when the object of the seduction—no matter how willing—is a married coworker. Through a devious or remarkably amateur device, (she sends him flowers with a signed card), Lescaze’s wife, Becky, uncovers the affair. And so does the Post.
There is no discussion of why Darling sends the card, or why Lescaze keeps it, or even of why he leaves it for Becky to find. This memoir does not explore intention or motivation. Either way, within a few pages, Lescaze is Darling’s. With her pendulum personality swinging predictably between adolescence and adulthood, of course by then she isn’t sure she wants him. Courting danger is intoxicating, but having it move in with you is an entirely different experience, and chapter.
Several times in the narrative Darling points to her youth. It is both the aphrodisiac and the elixir for Lescaze. At times, he is attracted to it, they both are: At times, he is repelled by it, they both are. Most of the time they seem to dangle from a ledge. Lescaze’s spiral continues through alcohol and the distance he places between his actions and his children. Darling doesn’t dally there. While it is the death of his son that seems to bring him closer to his daughters, it is his dying that brings him closer to readers.
But, it is in Lescaze’s death that Necessary Sins is a love story. Finally, Darling becomes real, but only here. Throughout most of the narrative, she is remote, deceptive. Darling is not a reliable narrator either because of the way she chooses to remember the past, or the way she chooses to reveal it. There is something keeping me from gaining access to Darling. I’d like to think it’s not judgment. Lynn Darling writes, I think honestly, about loving and losing Lescaze to cancer. And while she writes about remembering him now as a man, it’s not evident on the page.
The Lescaze Darling reveals does not reflect on his own decisions. And I don’t believe it. Their seduction seems to rely on words, on images, on fantasy. Am I to believe their reality relies on ignorance? The discussions: What are we doing? What have we done? How will our marriage be different?—don’t happen on the page. In fact, I have little indication from the text that they happen at all. Often, Darling does show the tender strains of marriage. She shows where the fairy tale of what I imagine she expects, does not add up to her reality. Still, I don’t see Lescaze’s divorce and the indecision; the doubt and the departure: I know these things because they are implied, not explored.
Hers is not the story of the wake. Darling prefers not to witness the damage caused by choices. Darling’s is the story of her time with the man she loves. In that, it is satisfactory. If I look to gain nothing more from it, I should be satisfied. But because I believe she is holding something back, because I believe it is unfair to present only the memoir you can bear to part with: I am not.
Darling’s memoir has inspired few criticisms. Either out of respect or malice, neither the Post n
or the Times published an online review of the book. Insightful, honest, poignant, compelling. The few respectable reviews published online strike a familiar chord. They all ring slightly out of tune. According to Kirkus Reviews, Necessary Sins is a “multilayered memoir…probing the ethics of adultery and portraying an enviable, mature marriage.” Darling does not probe. She unobtrusively recalls, she recounts, she relays; she does not probe. Or rather, she does not probe where she does not want to. She analyzes her own behaviors to a degree. Darling doesn’t question the ethics of her affair. What Darling does is to show the seldom seen heartache, despair and helplessness in watching the man you love die.
I do not believe Darling accepts Lescaze’s role in the affair. Darling seems to blame her youth while ignoring the possibility of Lescaze’s downward spiral as a contributing cause. I cannot agree with Deborah Donovan’s 2007 review on Booklist: Darling “opens an achingly honest window onto her life…an emotionally rewarding read.” As I say that, I realize it is not entirely true that I don’t believe it. There are parts where Darling holds nothing back. She is vulnerable in ink as Lescaze dies, often shifting from anger to understanding. She is real there. In other places she is guarded. She is not ready to let the reader in.
While I do not agree with Vanessa Juarez’s EW review: “Though Darling glazes over her insecurities with self-deprecation…” Darling’s dissection of her insecurities and self-deprecation about her writing are amply sprinkled throughout the text. I do agree with her that “the narrative is most revealing when she lets her guard down.” If Darling dared to do that more often, her memoir would be compelling. Perhaps, like editor Alexandra Jacobs says in her review in The Observer: “Lynn Darling’s sins may indeed have been necessary. This book was not—at least not for anyone but herself.” Darling’s gift with Necessary Sins is not as she claims to her readers to be “a memoir about screwing up and growing up, about the way our mistakes and embarrassments often teach us more about ourselves than our success ever can.” It is the gift of knowing when to love someone, and what, in the end, is worth holding on to.
What else is really necessary?

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