Claire Dederer is about to fall off the deep end at age 44 in her new book, "Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning" (Knopf, $25.95). When she confronts and reconciles with her younger self and regains her footing, she turns a potential face-plant into a fearless swan dive.
The book shifts between Dederer's adult and younger selves. Each chapter begins with a diary entry from her youthful journals. An unwelcome encounter in a sleeping bag at age 14 is where sexual awakening and a bunch of other trouble starts.
In an interview, Dederer describes it as the animating image of her book. When she takes off to Australia with an older, disinterested grad student, you fear for the girl.
Most of her vivid recollections are deeply, specifically rooted in the Seattle that shaped her life. It describes the city at a time, nascent and glorious, before the world really knew much about it. Readers who grew up in Portland during the '70s will feel a similar longing for the city as it once was. The book is filled with such pangs and stabs to the heart.
Dederer grew up in Seattle's leafy Laurelhurst, middle class in a nice neighborhood. When her parents divorced, her mom's younger hippie boyfriend moved in, causing a minor scandal. She writes how one night they all piled in his van and he drove them to a Seattle suburb to buy a color TV so that they could watch Elton John perform in color.
"One thing that I'm interested in a lot is how cultural and historical moments shape us personally. A lot of my growing up, and my sexualization, has to do with that weird moment in time that I grew up," she says by phone from her home on Bainbridge Island. "All the people and places we go become emblems as we look back. All these 'no big deal moments,' they all matter for me."
When Dederer finds herself recklessly attracted to someone she calls the Short Story Writer during a book tour, she teeters on infidelity as in the following passage from the book:
"I confess his sinning was what interested me. He was so ridiculously, overtly on the make, it sort of took me aback and even impressed me. Here I was, trying to keep myself together, trying to be better than the craptastic girl I'd been, and he was just running around being bad."
When I asked if it had been hard to look back at herself, she said, "Do you remember those ads in the back of the New Yorker for the Blo Poke? It's a long thing you stick in the fireplace. It's like that. I couldn't get up close to it because it was so hot and horrible in there. It was that uncomfortable and distasteful to me."
She kept the journals and letters from her youth and looking back now, allows herself some grace toward her younger self.
"Letters are more performative," she says. "You can see yourself trying to sell your life to your friends, always trying to be jolly and funny, even though I was confused and in the dark. I just always knew from the time I was a kid that I wanted to write. There were years that I didn't know how to be the writer I wanted to be. The journals were all I had."
Dederer, who also wrote "Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses," describes this memoir as more narrative and experimental than her first, which was more concerned with likability. "What I've learned since then is how to make it more immersive. It's what they call the fictive dream; you want the reader to get swept into the dream and get lost in the narrative."
It's a tricky memoir, she explains, because it's about how "we don't really change that much. And how do you write a memoir without a big life change or epiphany?"
This time, she says, she'll be OK if people don't necessarily like her. "I want to get at more complicated truths."
Claire Dederer will read from her book "Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 25, at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St.