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Book Review

‘Playing House’ by Lauren Slater

Lauren Slater.

Dianne Newton

Lauren Slater.

“I sometimes feel like flinching from the self portrayed in these pages,” writes Lauren Slater in the introduction to her new book, “a self as selfish as she is honest.” This admission is astute — throughout these 18 essays, most of which map the difficult territory of family, sex, and aging, Slater’s voice is aggressively, even unsettlingly, candid. While her honesty is perfect in some moments, in others it’s masochistic or cruel. She is not at all times likable.

And yet Slater’s attempt to make a family in spite of her own painful past, abusive mother, and fractured childhood seems downright heroic — a painful quest against long odds to avoid her own mother’s bitter madness, to replace violence with tenderness.

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In the book’s first, beautiful essay, “Tripp Lake,’’ Slater writes of her childhood summer camp, where the joy of horseback riding coexists with but does not rescue her from the sudden existential dread she comes into like an inheritance. “It was as if a curtain had been pulled back to reveal the true nature of the world,” she writes, “which was terror, through and through.” Slater grew up to become a psychologist and a writer — two approaches to understanding her own mental illness, two fronts on which to fight for happiness.

Pondering whether to have children, especially in light of the genetic tendency to pass on depression along with brilliance (her DNA, she says, is “both flower and thorn”), Slater ultimately opts for motherhood, but only if her husband will take on equal parenting duties. She wanted to avoid the fate of her own mother, “who was more or less devoured by her children”; she wanted to keep her career; she wanted to keep her sanity.

When her daughter’s first word is “papa,” not “mama,” Slater is both jealous and surprised to be — “someone had usurped me, at my insistence” — but when confronted with three weeks of primary caregiving (the husband is out of town), she finds herself profoundly bored. “Zigzags, cracks, pebbles, and plastic are enchanting for only so long,” Slater writes, a mundane catalog of toddler enthusiasms.

Slater’s own zigzagging from devotion to resentment (and back) gives these essays their power. Who hasn’t felt the competing and incompatible yearnings to be a domestic goddess and at the same time an independent and self-fulfilled individual, free from the endless demands of children?

Motherhood, as Slater writes it, is bracing and difficult, satisfying and stultifying. It is “at once a great and sentimental abstraction and, in its true nature, a series of tiny tasks, not a lifetime but a day, which brings you to another day, which brings you to a third, and so you go. It is all dirty work, full of germs and life.”

Because these essays appeared over several years in magazines — women’s magazines, specifically, which Slater says allowed her to publish “the whole unruly, unpretty truth” — some of their stories are retold, often from vantage points years apart. The effect is not of repetition, though, but of experiencing the same territory from different points of view, Rashomon-like.

Slater’s double mastectomy, undergone when her daughter was young, returns like an opened wound 10 years later in a devastating piece about learning that her adolescent girl has bought her first bra, without her: It aches, “a little knot of grief I hadn’t even known I’d had.”

Some later chapters — about building a table, buying a car — feel disconnected, tacked on. Without the grounding ballast of other people, Slater is a less interesting character and writer, proving just how enmeshed and indebted she is “to family, a constellation I’ve created even as it creates me.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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