A good reviewer should always disclose any biases up front. Get ready for a deluge of biases.
Because I had the good fortune to be born into a situation where free lodging in France was always available and because I hooked up with a global company that loves to piss away money on international conferences that accomplish absolutely nothing, I’ve done a lot of traveling in my nearly thirty-two years of existence. I’ve been to twenty-seven countries and five continents, and while I might like to visit Australia someday, I have no intention of literally freezing my tits off in Antarctica.
I’ve interacted with a variety of cultures, from Algerian to Argentinian, from Moroccan to Mexican. There were certain places where I felt comfortable and other places where I was quite aware that I was a hopelessly out-of-place American chick. But of all the cultures I have encountered, I have never felt more lost, alienated and disconnected than when I have traveled to locations in the American South. I imagine hell to be a Waffle House filled with NASCAR-decorated bubbas armed with shotguns eating buckets of lard before moseying out to their gun-rack-equipped pickup trucks where they turn on the radio to play country music or listen to hellfire-spouting preachers.
Churches, churches everywhere. Bugs, bugs, everywhere. I’ve been to Memphis and the Mississippi Delta, Atlanta and its environs, and on one particularly painful vacation in my teens, my dad, in his ongoing effort to imbue his daughter with social consciousness, took me on the route taken by the Freedom Riders, from D. C. to New Orleans. I appreciated the wonders excessive humidity did for my skin, but sweating like a pig for two weeks wasn’t my idea of a good time. I didn’t feel safe until we got to the French Quarter, a place I will always cherish as an oasis of sanity in the Bible Belt, the city where I later celebrated my twenty-first birthday by proudly displaying my tits from the balconies of Bourbon Street.
I still have the beads somewhere.
Given my general aversion to Southern culture and my firm belief that states of the old Confederacy are about a century behind the rest of human civilization, I wasn’t exactly thrilled when Robert Morrow gave me a book as a thank-you present for doing the interview (such a gentleman!), a book about two girls growing up in the South. I accepted it gracefully, but I would have been much more open to flowers, chocolate or a request for mutual gratification.
Fortunately, I had an international relocation to provide me with plenty of excuses to avoid opening Sleeping with Patty Hearst. Finally faced with a long, intercontinental flight, I shoved the book into my carry-on in case I ran out of nails to polish. I think I opened the book somewhere over Greenland, saying to myself, “Well, you haven’t had a personal growth experience in a while,” and plunged in with the enthusiasm of a swimmer anticipating icy waters.
Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a coming-of-age story about two half-sisters growing up in the South. Had the book turned out to be only that, I would have read about five pages and gone back to my nails. Fortunately the girls figured out that they wanted to get the hell out of the South seven pages into the novel, so I felt comfortable forging ahead.
I’m glad I did! Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a great book, and what makes it a great book is that it is a well-written story of those agonizing choices between becoming oneself or giving in to the expectations of others. Regardless of where you grow up, you are subject to the expectations of your culture of birth. While I had more freedom of choice growing up in San Francisco, I’m reasonably sure that had I chosen to become a right-wing Christian nut my parents would have happily sent me into exile. We always become who we are in the context of a conflict between parental and cultural expectations and the person we are inside. Sleeping with Patty Hearst deals with the complexity of that core issue, particularly with the challenge of mustering up what Scotland’s Admiral Fallow called “the courage to turn your back on the way you were raised.”
The expectations of Southern culture in the 1970s were unimaginably contradictory and burdensome, particularly for young women: either you became an obedient Christian wife or you schemed to get a man through your feminine wiles. The elder half-sister, Connie, is more determined to break free of those expectations than the younger Lily, who narrates the tale. Connie goes underground in what passes for an alternative community in The South, eventually falling into an intimate relationship with another woman. While this was a fairly radical act for the time and place, I’m not sure that Connie is gay; her affair seems more an act of rejection of cultural norms than self-discovery. Connie’s whole persona is about rejection, and she remains suspicious of anyone trying to mess with her throughout the entire book.
Lily, on the other hand, is a follower. When Connie is still living at home, Lily is all in favor of heading out to California and leaving the grits on the stove. Once Connie makes her limited escape, Lily is left at home with her mother Lorraine, a woman who allowed herself to get knocked up a couple of times and spends most of her life chain-smoking, telling herself and others that she’s not white trash and trying to land a man of suitable status and income. Lily “rebels” against Lorraine by having a clandestine affair with Lorraine’s boyfriend. A series of events leads her into a marriage with the preacher’s son that you know isn’t going to work in a million years, but Lily makes several game attempts to play the good Christian wife before admitting defeat.
What I appreciate about both of the sisters that I’d never appreciated before is that the indoctrination of expectations in The South, being much stronger and more tied to tradition, has a way of seeping into your soul and negating the natural choices you would otherwise make. While I would often find myself becoming impatient with Lily’s half-assed attempts at becoming a person, I also found myself empathizing with her struggle. The poor choices she makes are forgivable; they result from a combination of extreme naïveté and, ironically, a more hopeful view of life than her nihilistic sister. Both sisters feel like real human beings you feel you can reach out and touch; they have presence and life, unlike the caricatures that fill most books and movies these days.
This leads me to my main point: Sleeping with Patty Hearst is a great book because it’s extraordinarily well-written. Mary Lambeth Moore’s prose flows naturally, like a good long chat with a friend. Her refusal to resolve ambiguity is deeply appreciated, and the story is full of surprises and points of tension that make reading enjoyable. While I still have no plans to relocate to The South in this lifetime, Sleeping with Patty Hearst reminded me that we are all on the same journey of self-discovery, even those people who live below the Mason-Dixon line.
But I sure wish they’d hurry up and get on with it!
–Paris, France, June 2, 2013