Supposedly nobody’s buying collections of personal essays these days — perhaps that’s why the hapless character played by Lena Dunham on “Girls” is so intent on writing one. If it’s true that such works aren’t in demand, it shouldn’t be. Pieces that coalesce around a particular period in a writer’s life can form a lovely mosaic-like memoir. Meghan Daum’s “My Misspent Youth’’ is one, and, at the other end of the age spectrum, Diana Athill’s “Somewhere Towards the End’’ is another. From the middle comes Cynthia Zarin’s often elusive and always enchanting “An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History.’’
This is Zarin’s first book of prose for adults. She’s published four volumes of poetry and several children’s books. The 12 essays that comprise “An Enlarged Heart’’ weave in and out of Zarin’s two marriages, her own childhood and her children’s, beach houses, Manhattan apartments, and European junkets. This may sound disjointed, but it isn’t. Zarin knits her stories together with an appealing and deeply intimate voice. Whether she’s remembering a failing relationship or a torn jacket lining, Zarin’s essays read as if we’ve caught her in the middle of a conversation with herself — as the best personal essays do.
In the title essay, which first appeared in The New Yorker and then in “The Best American Essays, 2004,’’ Zarin recounts her 3-year-old daughter’s bout with a potentially lethal condition, Kawasaki disease. The malady can cause inflammation of a child’s cardiac muscle but, as throughout the book, it’s Zarin whose heart seems to enlarge as she relives her experience on the page. Even in a crisis, she’s absorbing, noticing, finding stories within stories. In the ambulance that rushes her daughter to a hospital on Cape Cod, Zarin observes: “The technician has a last name — Silva — that’s common in Provincetown. Is she a local girl? ‘You bet I am,’ she says. ‘When I was in high school, I couldn’t date — everyone was my cousin.’ ”
Many of Zarin’s essays hinge on her poet’s preoccupation with language. She often navigates her way through memory using individual words as signposts. In “Curious Yellow” Zarin sifts through moments of her life associated with various colors: women she saw on the street two weeks ago wearing yellow stockings; the marigold stockings worn by a character in a 1970s movie; the bowl Zarin misremembered as blue during a youthful reading of Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.’’ In “Mr. Ferri and the Furrier” Zarin recalls a tailor and a seller of pelts, whom she places in the essay, she admits, by virtue of “the association of consonants or vowels.”
Zarin’s narrative keeps returning to Manhattan, where she has lived her whole life and to which “An Enlarged Heart’’ is a valentine of sorts. Zarin’s Manhattan, like her prose, is both familiar and dreamlike, with surreal scenes often unfolding just steps from the city sidewalks. In “Restaurants” Zarin takes her kids to a swimming pool in a friend’s apartment building. The friend orders lunch on “a black phone with a handle and a dial, of the kind you hardly ever see anymore” and soon a waiter in formal dress, wheeling a silver cart, appears, seeming to be “an apparition . . . like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.”
Suddenly her kids’ play date collides with the New York of Zarin’s childhood, to which she returns frequently in her imagination and in this book; the New York where phone numbers had exchanges like CHelsea-3 and ALgonquin-4, and ladies had their initials embroidered inside their fur coats.