A magnetic pull sets in while reading “The Way We Weren’t,’’ a sinking into the author’s state of heart and mind, a compulsion to keep turning the pages. The memoir’s allure is a testament to Jill Talbot’s formidable talent. This was not an easy story to live, nor is it an easy one to read.
We’d like to think, reading Talbot’s saga of one single mother’s decline into economic, emotional, and spiritual despair, “She screwed up, and also she’s an idiot, so of course her life fell apart. That could never happen to me.”
But it could, of course — if it hasn’t already.
You can prove it by Jill Talbot. With a doctorate in contemporary American literature and film and master’s degree in creative writing, she’s been employed as a writer-in-residence and professor of English at several US universities. Heading into a seemingly bright future, Talbot had every reason to believe she’d end up in the life that people like her (and us) believe we deserve.
Instead, Talbot fell in love and had a baby with a man named Kenny, who begged her not to abort their lovechild, then disappeared shortly after their daughter’s birth, kicking off a decadelong spiral fueled by alcohol, obsession, and circumstance.
“According to the US Census Bureau,” Talbot writes, seamlessly integrating her own situation into its broader social context, “7 percent of ten million custodial mothers do not receive child support. . . . I am one of them. Nineteen percent with bachelor’s degrees or more do not receive support . . . I have a PhD.”
Along with her critique of deadbeat dads and single motherhood in the United States, Talbot offers up a shockingly unsavory exposé of the devaluation of our educators. In her moment of need, Talbot’s academic career failed to protect her from abject poverty; in fact, a series of part-time, underpaid positions condemned her to it.
In search of her daughter’s father, in search of a steady teaching job, in search of the truth of her own story, Talbot moves her child from one seedy apartment in one sad city to the next, all the while imagining an imminent reconciliation with the man who abandoned her.
Throughout, Talbot offers equally compelling, opposing evidence that (a) she and her daughter are the victims of a callow cad and (b) her daughter and her ex are the victims of Talbot’s own instability and skittishness.
“It’s a story she tells often,” Talbot writes near the book’s opening. “One first sentence begins: ‘He left on a Sunday morning.’ Or sometimes, she begins, ‘He left when their daughter was four months old.’ . . . One thing that has remained the same in every version: that he left on a Sunday in September. This is not true. He left on a Saturday in July. Time has become a detail that can change with letters typed on a keyboard, with one click of the delete button.”
“The Way We Weren’t’’ is as much a story about the stories we tell ourselves and the way time folds back onto itself as it is an antihero’s journey of a woman en route to her own salvation. Describing a photograph of herself and Kenny, Talbot writes, “The sun fighting through clouds, their squinting against the hollows of the canyon, their suspicion that the two of them together would one day be only something she writes about, that they were closer than they knew to a canyon of distance.”
Reinforcing Talbot’s skepticism about the existence of infallible truth, she refers to herself alternately in first and third person, a device that can be jarring. And despite her clever handling of conflicting culpability, her tone at times is more self-pitying than self-aware. Nonetheless, “The Way We Weren’t’’ succeeds brilliantly. Like the most expert practitioners of the genre, Talbot burrows deep into the minutia of her own life in service to a big, disturbing, and important story that contains multitudes.
THE WAY WE WEREN’T
By Jill Talbot
Soft Skull, 304 pp., paperback, $15.95
Meredith Maran is the author, most recently, of “Why We Write.’’ The sequel, “Why We Write About Ourselves,’’ will be published in January. Follow her on Twitter @Meredith