Alix Kates Shulman was on the surface a successful and fulfilled woman; a pioneer of the feminist movement in the 70s, an author of several novels as well as a mother and a wife. But when her children had left home, and feminism was suffering the backlash of the 80s, it became apparent to her that things would have to change. Her marriage was grinding to an inevitable end, and the frantic New York life she had always loved now seemed hollow and insufficient. And so she made an eccentric choice, and went to live for the spring and summer months in the family beach cabin on Long Island in Maine. She calls it ‘the nubble’ as it stands on a rocky promontory that is completely isolated, without plumbing or electricity or a telephone. Her memoir, Drinking the Rain, is an account of how this experience offered her precious experiences that she would struggle to hold onto for the rest of her life.
First and foremost, this was an exercise in solitude and what it could teach her. She describes how afraid she was initially of being attacked, and she had plenty of misgivings about the lack of creature comforts, too, having not particularly enjoyed spending time on the nubble with her husband and children. But as the days pass and she expands into her freedom, she notices that she is becoming less anxious in all kinds of ways. The most notable change in her lifestyle, however, concerns her diet. Unwilling to make the long trek to the nearest store for food, she begins to eat what’s readily available around her. Mussels, clams, periwinkles provide her protein, and then she notices how many edible leaves grow around, how many different types of berries are available. This seashore self-sufficiency clearly has a big impact on her sense of self. Living in harmony with nature, foraging for her meals, she becomes enamoured of a sophisticated sort of thrift, in which nothing naturally provided is wasted, and the world around her offers everything she might need.
This, however, turns out to be only the first third of the book. Shulman returns to the city when the winter comes, hoping to be able to carry the serenity and the independence of the beach with her. It isn’t quite as easy as she had hoped, not least because divorce proceedings now seem inevitable, and her husband, Jerry, is an aggressive, angry sort of whom she is fundamentally afraid. She ends up taking a teaching job in Boulder, Colorado and finding out what it’s like to live in the mountains, and in a community that is far more interested in spiritual wellbeing than New York. Whilst the premise of these later sections is very intriguing – how can she continue the journey of self-awareness she has begun, despite changing circumstances – inevitably much of the focus is lost. The rest of the book covers a decade, in which she returns to the beach in the summer and becomes an itinerant teacher in the winter, and people feature more heavily in her self-development. She also takes a lover, to use her terminology, some poor patsy called Charles, who I hope is immune to embarrassment. I have always believed it is impossible to overshare with me, but I confess that this late life romance had quite a high ick factor. After some particularly distressing descriptions (‘my hand curled like a kitten in his’ is the one I feel able to quote), I tried to figure out what I didn’t like. And I realised it was the infantilisation inherent in the relationship. I like adults to stay adults, and Alix Kates Schulman had reverted to a coy girlishness that attempted – painfully at times – to be raunchy.
This unease came with me into the last part of the book, which takes an ecological perspective. It seems that every time Alix and Charles find something particularly delicious to eat, it turns out to be potentially bio-hazardous. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster has just happened, the ‘red tide’, a lethal form of algae, is threatening the Maine coastline, the island is invaded by a swarm of allergy-inducing caterpillars. What will happen to Schulman’s commitment to eating the food nature provides, if nature itself is polluted and corrupted? By now I was wondering at the strange power of narrative to render unsympathetic a viewpoint I would naturally take myself. Schulman’s fretting and poring over food is no different to what I would have done but when I read about it, I felt the same irritation that reading the latest media-created food scare provokes. Once you get down to it, it seems that nothing these days is actually safe to put in one’s mouth, but still we eat anyhow. Plus, I wondered how Schulman’s experience could ever be translated into a philosophy. We can’t all move to isolated coastlines and eat seaweed; it’s only the rarity of her situation that makes it in any way sustainable.
So what had happened? I’d begun this book enjoying the premise and impressed by the writing. But I ended up mildly irritated, uncertain what I was supposed to believe, and grossed out by OAP sex. There is much to admire in this memoir that does try to be unstintingly honest and open. But I felt that, no matter how well written a memoir is, there will always be a problem if the narrator becomes unsympathetic. I had admiration for Alix Kates Schulman over the first half of the book, but in the second she came across to me as, well, a bit silly. I felt that she had begun by wanting to portray herself as someone learning, someone deeply engaged in the world around her, someone trying something new with the vulnerability and uncertainty that entails. Her perspective was on what lay outside of herself, which is paradoxically the way we grow. But then she could not help but succumb to the desire to romanticise herself. Somewhere along the line, the easy honesty of the early sections fades, and Schulman becomes a character in her own drama, or several characters – the concerned citizen, the plucky dame, the red-hot grandma, the imperilled eco-warrior. This is one of those interesting books that are still worth reading despite the flaws, but I would have liked it better if Schulman had been aware what a tightrope she was walking between the fascination of self-development and the tumble into self-centredness.