my life in a novel

by caitlin meredith

This weekend I read my mom’s first novel for the second time. The first time I read it, almost three years ago, it was a surreal experience. Though fiction, many of the characters and scenarios in the book are based on what has really happened in my life, in our family. It is a wonderful book – not because it copies reality, but because it uses the same material to draw out a different, equally rich, realistic and compelling narrative. Seeing how my mom channeled all of the real life ingredients into an entirely new concoction gave me a keyhole view into a creative mind; I’ve never been so close to an artist.

Reading the book was the opportunity to view my life, my family’s life, through the glass. From afar everyone else’s life can seem so much richer, more intense, especially in books or movies. The day to day of my own life, or the slog of family dynamics, just doesn’t seem interesting most of the time. In a novel, especially this one, scenes come alive, people are wittier, life is layered and plays out in a larger-than-life way. Much of that has to do with what a great writer my mom is, but also the importance that a life is afforded just by the very act of recording it. If there’s something to write about, it must be extraordinary.

This is the first time that I saw versions of my own memories written down from someone else’s perspective. For much of the time period of the book I was a child, so in the novel’s rendering I now see those same situations through the eyes of an adult. Instead of feeling like she’s missed the point, I understand what was happening on a different level. Now I’m an adult identifying with the other adults.

One of my first reactions was the irrational (or was it?) fear that the novelistic portrayal of certain events will start to trump my actual memories of what happened. In one scene the main character Eve and her son Luke take the demented grandmother to a senior day care where a peach pie class is being held. In reality, I went to that day care center and heard my grandmother call it a snakepit. When I was musing to my mother about how strange it was to see events from my life conveyed this way, giving the peach pie day as an example, she said, “God, I forgot you came that day. Now it seems like something that just happened in the book.” Wait! So in addition to having it happen to a boy instead of me, now my mom has forgotten what her real life daughter did. It’s hard to say if that’s important or not. Having all of these experiences recorded wouldn’t have happened any other way – I certainly wasn’t keeping a diary. But I can’t help but worry that in some way my own memory chest has been raided and that later in life it might be more difficult to sort out my fact from the book’s fiction.

This time through I had a new challenge: a sex scene.When I first read the manuscript there was no sex. But then my mom’s fancy schmancy agent (since fired) insisted that there be a sex scene in the main character’s extramarital dalliance. So, the second time reading it I wasn’t sure what I would find or how I would feel about it. It turned out to be a non-issue. The taboo passage’s event was tastefully glossed over while still alluding to and conjuring a forbidden sensuality and all the pleasure and guilt it provoked. But my anxiety about it made me wonder: Why would it be so terrible to read a sex scene written by your mother? I’m not a child, I’m 35.  Most of the sex scenes out there have been written by people that have kids…and parents…and siblings. I bet the Europeans are good at dealing with that. Over here in America, though, no one wants to hear about their parents’ sex life real or imagined. Erica Jong’s daughter somehow survived it, and compared to her I’m pretty lucky.

So here is a book about us, sort of. And here are characters that I feel like I know, but they’re different. When I was little I would get very upset with my mom for telling a story inaccurately to her friends. I remember a dinner party in Santa Rosa where she told the story of a cop pulling us over and embellished it with some outlandish detail provoking gasps and laughs. I protested: “Mommy! That’s not the way it happened!” She smiled and said, “But it makes it a better story.” As I struggle with my own writing,  I’m still learning that lesson from her.