The opening chapters of Claire Dederer’s delightful memoir will have you laughing helplessly and calling up your best friend so you can read choice passages aloud over the phone.
Women will feel a special kinship with this book. It's an intelligent insider’s perspective on the dissatisfactions, these days, of inhabiting a female body that is anything less than strong, flexible, and lovely, as well as on the impossibility of bringing a sufficiently strong, flexible, loving spirit to meet the current exorbitant demands of motherhood. But the book is a treat for any reader.
Among other things, nationally known journalist Dederer has produced a funny, observant send-up of West Coast liberal culture, so oppressive and confining in certain respects that it seems impossible for “liberal” to have come from the same Latin root as “liberate.” She is trenchant about the stresses on contemporary marriage, too, and there is much to ponder in her reflections on how the shapes that today’s adults impose on their marriages have been influenced by choices their own parents made during the divorce-happy 1970s.
Most compelling of all is Dederer’s critique of current versions of American optimism about human nature. Today we’ve gone way beyond the Enlightenment faith that human beings have the potential to do good and can freely choose to act on that potential. We believe, if sometimes just unconsciously, that human beings should be good. Period.
Well, anyway, this is what Dederer believed, along with all the other young parents in her North Seattle neighborhood. “Goodness ruled me,” she says, meditating on her impossibly high standards of excellence as a parent and as a woman balancing marriage with a career. She refused to follow the example her mother had set of merely putting up a good front.
But the dark side of all her busy striving to be good was “an underlying terror.” As a new mother Dederer is “surprised by the level of dread that filled me at almost all times. There was occasional pleasure, but it often consisted of the cessation of dread. It was as if by turning into a mother, I had also turned into Camus.”
Her perfectionism dooms her to failure, of course. Fortunately, whether her intense back pain comes from carrying around a growing child or a psychological burden, it does send her to a series of yoga classes. The sometimes hilarious narrative of marriage and parenthood, interspersed with flashbacks to her childhood, unfolds in a structure organized around a series of yoga poses that eventually let Dederer stop judging her every single move. She discovers that the opposite of “good” may not be “bad,” but “real.”
Yoga aficionados will savor the lore as well as the lovingly rendered muscular details of hatha (etc.) poses in the book, even though Dederer is irreverent about them: “The women sat cross-legged, with straight backs. They all gazed straight ahead into the middle distance, as if they were about to break out into a collective fit of landscape painting.”
Non-yogic Seattle readers will feel pleasant shocks of possessive recognition as Dederer traipses through rainy streets around town from Green Lake to the Ballard Locks and from Caffe Ladro to University Village. There’s also a visit to the Phinney Ridge community center, full of young moms all wearing Dansko clogs, a sign of “our lack of ability to care for ourselves: We could run elaborate food mills and operate breast pumps and launder cloth diapers and juggle complex part-time work arrangements, but we could not, would not tie our own shoes.”
For most of the narrative Dederer is terrific company though maybe 15 yoga poses would have sufficed. Still, I was uncomfortable when she talked about the ways in which her husband fell short of her expectations at various junctures. Confessing the details of one’s own crabby, crappy behavior can be charming, or at least disarming. But describing the specific gaffes of a loyal, loving, depressed spouse verges on mere gossip and can come across as betrayal. Did the task Dederer set herself — to stop trying so hard to be perfect — have to include exposing the imperfections of her man? Couldn't she have sketched just general impressions instead of putting him so often and vividly into the Foot In Mouth Pose?
On the other hand, my discomfort may simply demonstrate that, being of Dederer’s mother’s generation, I’m still stuck in a life of keeping up appearances.
Dederer reads from Poser on Monday Jan. 17 at Elliott Bay Book Co. (1521 Tenth Ave.); Tuesday Jan. 18 at Third Place Books (17171 Bothell Way NE, Lake Forest Park); and Wednesday Jan. 26 at Ravenna Third Place Books (6504 20th Ave. NE). All readings start at 7 p.m.
Claire Dederer, Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), $26.