The Art of Losing It All

Book review: The Rules Do Not Apply, by Ariel Levy

Until recently, I lived in a world where lost things could always be replaced. But it has been made overwhelmingly clear to me now that anything you think is yours by right can vanish, and what you can do about that is nothing at all.

New Yorker writer Ariel Levy’s memoir was sure to top plenty of year-end best of lists (here, for example, on Time’s top 10 nonfiction books of 2017) so I made a point of getting around to it before year’s end.

Levy wrote a New Yorker piece about suffering a devastating miscarriage while on a journalistic assignment in Mongolia. This book builds on that popular essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” from 2013. The circumstances and details of her miscarriage made it especially devastating, it’s harrowing and painful even to read about and impossible not to understand and empathize with the toll it took on her.

Alongside this wrenching shock, other threads of her once ideal life were simultaneously unraveling – she’d been cheating, her partner needed rehab after hiding her excessive drinking, their relationship and domestic life were crumbling. It’s a lot to hit a person in a lifetime, let alone all at once.

There were shadows I saw out of the corner of my eye that looked like problems waiting to become real, but you never know with shadows.

The expansion of the story of this part of her life includes how she came to motherhood somewhat late, and why she made the choices surrounding it that she did. Much of it has to do with that question of modern feminism, whether women really can have it all – career, solid partnership, family, success, motherhood, love, fidelity, security, etc. Here’s where an aspect of privilege comes into the story but remains uncomfortably untouched.

I found the book problematic and often uncomfortable while reading despite Levy’s impressively skillful writing, and I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why, or why I felt so strongly about it, until I read the wonderful Roxane Gay‘s short and sweet Goodreads review:

“Hmm. The writing on a sentence level is exquisite. Levy’s vocabulary is just superb…Levy demonstrates self awareness and is willing to put herself on the page in uncomfortable but compelling ways. The end of the book is a mess. The last few chapters are just baffling given the strength of what precedes them.
There is also this awkward strain of unexamined white girl privilege throughout. Now, is such examination mandatory? Of course not. But whew. The lack of it is pronounced.”

That’s exactly the trouble. The writing really is something special, whether or not you’re even that interested in the subject matter, which I wasn’t. I generally avoid reading material relating to motherhood, it’s just not interesting to me, but after reading a few pages of Levy’s writing, I was entranced. She’s an effortless, gorgeous writer.

But it felt uncomfortable, mainly for the reasons Gay describes better and more succinctly than I can. Maybe this book would be a great help to someone who’s lived through the same kind of situations – the specific pains and losses – that Levy has. I’m sure there would be comfort in that.

As it was, it felt difficult not to cringe at her tone deafness and bad choices (and I don’t mean for the guilt she felt about choosing to fly to Mongolia while pregnant, a topic she explores that was almost anxiety-inducing because I could empathize so strongly, as I guess anyone could when it comes to guilt and questioning our decisions.) I know no one really realizes what good things they have in their life when it feels like everything else is disaster and ruins, but some of the things she breezily took for granted – often owing to the inherent privilege Gay mentions – were impossible to ignore.

Of course, that’s the idea – that she thought there were rules in place for her, that there were even special, acceptable ways to break those rules, or purchasable, earn-able fixes to get around them when you needed them bended for you, but there’s something more at work here. Everyone’s problems are their own, and it’s like the old saying – if you threw your problems in a pile with everyone else’s, you’d grab yours back. It’s natural that she wouldn’t recognize the positive, but it just feels frustrating.

The lesson learned is that she thought she had time, all the time she needed to do everything that would make her life whole. That’s what she was promised by nature of being an educated, hardworking, liberated, independent woman, she feels. When her marriage falls apart on two fronts thanks to infidelity and alcoholism, then she loses the baby she thought she had plenty of time to get around to having, she realizes nothing was ever promised at all. What she’d thought the world owed her was illusory all along.

The wide-open blue forever had spoken: You control nothing.

Impressive, intelligent writing and deeply personal, sometimes touchingly poignant examinations of the harsh reckonings of reality, aging, grief, mistakes, and loss definitely make it worth the read, but with some content drawbacks. As a bonus, I had Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” echoing in my head after reading, it feels like a good companion to this.
My rating: 3/5

The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir
by Ariel Levy

published March 14, 2017 by Random House

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