The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

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I had mixed feelings about this book. Unfortunately, the more I read, the more my enjoyment of it dwindled. By the time I finished it, I was mostly frustrated.

Levy’s memoir is both about her career as a writer, her first marriage, and her experience with pregnancy. In the first half of the book, Levy writes about becoming a successful writer and journalist, falling in and love and getting married, and deciding to have children with her wife. In the second half of the book, she miscarries, splits up with her wife, and has to deal with the loss of everything she thought was stable: her home, her relationship, her child. I found the first half the memoir engaging, but about halfway through, the book soured for me, when Levy describes an affair with a former lover that partially set off the downward spiral of her marriage.

She reconnects with a trans man she’d dated in college. She’d known him pre-transion, and before he came out, and throughout the short section in which she describes their affair, she continually refers to him, in the past, using his birth name and female pronouns. One reviewer on Goodreads pointed out that she may have got permission from him to refer to him in this way. Given the way their affair ended, this seems unlikely to me. Either way, her casual use of female pronouns to refer to a trans man left me feeling uneasy and frustrated.

Unfortunately, it gets much worse. After describing her affair, she writes about interviewing Mike Huckabee for a story. She muses that his views on homosexuality are as real to him as her ex’s “belief that he is a man”. This seemingly offhand remark stunned me, especially coming from someone who has written about extensively about gender. To compare someone’s (albeit bigoted and unfounded) religious and/or political beliefs to someone’s innate gender identity? It’s appalling, shortsighted, offensive, and careless. Levy completely lost my trust with this one sentence.

For some reason, I kept reading. There were beautiful sentences in this book. The audio was excellent; Levy’s narration was measured and clear, but emotional. She has some interesting things to say about what it means to “have it all”, about the complexities of long-term relationships, and about the tensions, especially for women, between career and family. Her writing about her pregnancy and miscarriage and the grief that followed is raw and powerful.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that if she had made a different choice about how to write about one person in her life, I might have loved this book. I make it sound like he was a central character; in fact, he played a relatively minor roll in the book. It was, primarily, a book about grief, and how we do (or do not) move on after devastating and unexpected loss.

But despite many beautiful passages and Levy’s heartfelt and honest self-examination, it was her causal transphobia (which I don’t believe was intentional, but it exists nonetheless) that stayed with me. There were passages in this book that moved me deeply, but I cannot, in good conscience, recommend it. This brings up a larger question: should I recommend books that, though they might have other merits, perpetrate, however unintentionally, systems of oppression and injustice?

I’d like to say, resoundingly, no. But when I’m honest with myself, my answer to this questions is slightly more nuanced. Sometimes talking about the problematic parts of otherwise excellent books can be more constructive than simply writing them off.

In the case of The Rules Do Not Apply–I’m certainly not condemning Levy as a person or a writer. We are all imperfect, and many of us are trying–to be more open, more understanding, more humble, more just. I believe that she is, too. I don’t know her whole story. But I’m not recommending her book.

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