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book review

‘She Matters’ by Susanna Sonnenberg

ali arnold for the boston globe

Women guide one another through life; this is the central message of Susanna Sonnenberg’s second memoir, “She Matters: A Life in Friendships.” The author tracks her development as a woman, an artist, a lover, wife, and mother through the prism of her female friendships, some fleeting, some decades-long.

These connections prove as formative, if not more so, than many of her relationships with men, which are a side element of this remarkably written — if occasionally uneven — book. These female guides are not benign or consistently benevolent — there are no pure or magical muses here, no easy plots or expected fixes. The women who populate Sonnenberg’s universe are feisty, edgy, problematic, fantastic, sexy, ambitious, secretive, neurotic, playful, intelligent, big-hearted, and fierce; in other words, they act as mirrors for the author herself, who becomes alternatively strange and recognizable to herself and to her reader through relationships that range from antagonistic, mutually supportive, “vital and exquisite and symmetrical,’’ sisterly, loving, sometimes sexual, worshipful, and in most cases, redemptive in some significant way.

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Deep specificity in a memoir serves universal meaning because it drops the reader into the lives and minds of the characters. This is certainly true in “She Matters’’; each of Sonnenberg’s guides is exquisitely rendered in an almost deliciously obsessive way — we see each woman’s home, her habits of dress and gesture and speech, her movements through space, and these details make each woman somehow iconic.

SHE MATTERS: A Life in Friendships

Author:
Susanna Sonnenberg
Publisher:
Scribner
Number of pages:
255 pp.
Book price:
$24

Sonnenberg captures the closeness between women friends that occasionally moves into periods of “doubleness.” Each initial encounter reads like the opening of a new love story. “I mimicked the flutter in her face, imitated her cadences, as if I might enchant myself and transform into her, which would demonstrate how deeply I knew her.”

Another great strength of the book is Sonnenberg’s dogged willingness to self-implicate. Without restraint she reveals herself in all her neediness, jealousy, compassion, almost manic desire to be loved in the wake of a mother (the subject of Sonnenberg’s first book, “Her Last Death”), who taught her that the primary task in any relationship is to eventually burn it down. “I lunged for intimacy, for the reassurance — I like you! do you like me? — but I always grabbed for it too soon, thinking that a lot equaled intimacy, and ‘a lot’ never seemed like enough anyway. This made the girl quickly awful, at once too significant, and it probably made me awful to them, my alarming, unexplained hungers. We ignited, large, and flamed out.”

‘She Matters’ artfully reveals the depth and gravity of love between women as they make sense of the changing and often treacherous emotional and logistical terrain of their forward-moving lives.

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In one scene she tells a friend struggling with the challenges of new motherhood, that she is a bad mother. She lets a true friend down by judging her life choices and lacking the courage, until much later, to apologize. She not only catalogs moments when she was betrayed or disappointed by a girlfriend, but shows herself as petulant and withholding, wild and disloyal, afraid to give but willing to take, and readers will admire, and relate to, this penetrating honesty.

Sonnenberg makes the important point (not to mention a very feminist one) that women support, forgive, fight, and sustain one another, often over the course of decades-long friendships, sometimes during just the span of a single day. Friendship between and among women generally is not easy, frivolous, or uncomplicated. But it is, as Sonnenberg makes quite clear, absolutely essential.

In one chapter the author helps a friend declutter a house of “the fine litter of memory.” She describes an early roommate relationship as one in which “[w]e played at every realm at once: house, family, seduction, education, marriage, united effort.” Later, a much younger woman takes Sonnenberg through a ritual that enables her to forgive herself for a difficult decision she made years earlier.

Although Sonnenberg is a gifted literary stylist with a stunning ability to write sentences that read like beautiful traps, the book’s tone is often uneven, and sometimes the language is overwrought in a way that undermines the profound nature of the author’s experiences. For example, one moment when Sonnenberg talks about the “bigness of sex,” or friendships designed solely to “save the mothers.”

Some chapters have the feel of stand-alone essays rather than parts of a propulsive narrative arc. The narrator, too, remains a bit of a mystery, perhaps an unavoidable pitfall of the book’s main enterprise, which is to render self primarily through the other. The timeline tangles at times; for example, the author is grieving the loss of her father in the opening chapter, but we don’t revisit this event until the very end of the book — after we have literally traveled the world with the author and her friends. It’s jarring to return to the prominence of this man in her life, or to feel as moved by it as we have been by the loss of various friends.

Apart from several scenes with Sonnenberg’s father, as well as small details about boyfriends and a brief mention of struggles in her marriage, the men are largely peripheral. This makes sense in a book devoted to the role of women in the narrator’s life, but it also denies the reader a chance to see the author from a different angle; we see her through the characterization of other women, but we don’t often see her standing alone; when we do, the book shines.

Indeed, the most moving chapter is one in which a friendship slips away after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, for reasons the writer struggles to understand, a break that comes as a surprise, a woman we hardly know before she is gone: “It never occurred to me the elegant friendship could end in shards.” Sonnenberg lets us into the process of grief and loss in a way that attempts to unpack the psychological roots of the woman’s decision in a way that is not based solely on the author’s singular experiences and is therefore less purely self-referential than the drama of the other chapters. Interestingly, the writing becomes fractured here and loose, breaking from the smooth style of the rest of the book.

“She Matters” artfully reveals the depth and gravity of love between women as they make sense of the changing and often treacherous emotional and logistical terrain of their forward-moving lives. Navigating “the complex task of belonging” is the gift these women give to Sonnenberg, and her gift in response is to inspire the reader to unpack her own history of friendships, the “scaffolding of friends,’’ with all its betrayals and disappointments and long-held loves, to render that “deeply known friend” and to remember “love in its greatest warmth, its common comfort.”

Friendship, a relationship undergirded by love, is a reality that is fraught and complicated, full of terror and truth. “We’d been real,” Sonnenberg says, “we’d been there.” Women often put women on the map, in their own lives as well as in the larger world. In that sense, this deeply personal book is epic: It tells the universal story of those who love and shape us, those who witness our struggles and our triumphs, and each of Sonnenberg’s friends — even if not the author herself, not fully — will remain imprinted in the reader’s mind, just like the image of a beloved friend.

Emily Rapp is the author of “Poster Child’’ and the forthcoming (March 2013) “Still Point of the Turning World.’’ She can be reached at emily@emilyrapp.com.

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