Drinking The Rain

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.

20 thoughts on “Drinking The Rain

  1. Good post, Litlove, of a book I’ll never read; you give lots of sensible reasons for your opinion. A little more of Schulman’s own prose, sick-making as it may be, would give us a flavour of what to avoid. Coincidentally, Jenny Diski, in a recent issue of the _lRB_, writes at length about the current and past waves of feminism. Perhaps Schulman fits in there.

      • JB – thank you for your comment and your correction. Yes, Schulman was very much involved with what is known as second wave feminism, which started in the States in the 60s, Europe in the 70s and carried on until the 80s. Then there was a backlash. At the end of the memoir, Schulman is suggesting that feminism is developing a new agenda and new force, but this is really hopeful thinking. The feminist movement has still not quite recovered, although the spate of publications on gender issues in the past couple of years do seem evidence that the questions on which it is based are once again attracting attention. Which is a good thing, I think.

  2. Shulman was a writing teacher of mine in the seventies. She was very supportive from a feminist perspective. She had a vivid personality, often too intense to be around, hopping from interest to interest with her curious but often naive mind. I read all her books out of loyalty, but I never liked her writing and always found it way too narcissistic and disappointing. Her fiction was never fictitious enough and her memoirs over-revealed.

    • That is SO interesting, Squirrel. You hit a number of nails on the head there, I think. Naive isn’t a term I’d thought of, but it does describe her reaction to several events in the memoir (and makes sense of her reaction for me), and I am so relieved that you also felt she over-revealed in memoir writing. I was afraid I was getting overly sensitive!

  3. I know just what you mean about a certain kind of narrative–I feel something contrary rise up in me. When I watch a TV show about dieting, it always makes me want to eat more in protest. And memoirs require either an external focus or a degree of self-knowledge that has its context in a broader awareness to be engaging. Otherwise it’s narcissism and personally I’ve had enough of that for a lifetime.

    • Lilian – another excellent comment. You really nail what’s important about memoir – the more outwardly engaged or wise the narrator, the better the story sits with the reader. I am so with you on being bored by narcissism. And that’s just it, when you talk about wanting to eat after watching dieting shows. It’s the odd mixture of reverence and over-reaction to things that happen that really narks.

  4. I loved the title of the book and am quite disappointed about the ick factor (I have no clue what OAP sex means but we can leave it at that). Interesting comment that Querulous Squirrel added. That really gives me a feeling for the personality and I can imagine that reading the book could feel like someone was telling you her very personal story, also getting physically way too close, her face almost touching yours. Yikes…. Thatnks for testing the waters for us… I think I might skip it.

    • I hope you’ve seen Jean’s comment below, Caroline! She explains the OAP part! I don’t normally mind at all what people tell me in memoirs, so I was surprised to find myself reacting badly. But don’t dismiss the book on my opinion alone. There is much there that’s worth reading, and even the flawed parts were interesting in their way.

  5. “After some particularly distressing descriptions (‘my hand curled like a kitten in his’ is the one I feel able to quote)” : Intensely amusing moment in this excellent post, my dear Litlove, and, as I’ve noticed over time, at your absolute funniest in the most wonderfully understated way whenever somewhat (much) disgusted. I remember the final ‘killer’ words of your review of Georges Bataille…(completely agree, BTW. I myself never went beyond page 3 or 4).

    • Dear Bea! So lovely to have you drop by! Do hope you are fine and well and busy in a good way. And thank you for your wonderful comment. I am never happier than when I can amuse you!

  6. I’m squirming with delight that Caroline – most understandably – presumes OAP (Old Age Pensioner) sex is some kind of minority sexual practice that you wouldn’t wish to mention in full🙂 I do hope we never end up communicating in some kind of global, homogenised English with all such minor potential for cultural misunderstanding ironed out.

    • Jean – oh so do I! I think I bewildered an awful lot of readers with that acronym – and it’s about the only acronym I know!🙂 And I’d also wish to point out that I would never censor anyone in their private lives – I’m only asking that if they must write about them, they do so with a sense of humour and not too much sentimentality…..

  7. How disappointing–I have this one on my reading pile after hearing good things about it (though it sounds like it might be worth a try still?). I do know what you mean by a little too much information creating an ick factor–that has happened to me with a number of books, and sadly I can still say which ones and what the scenes involved. Why do some memories not fade away? Had no idea what OAP meant either…how funny.

    • Danielle – it really IS worth reading. It’s the kind of book you can disagree with (as I did in places) but still enjoy as an experience. And it is beautifully written. The first part I enjoyed without reservation at all, and much of the second too. Isn’t it funny how that ick thing really sticks in the mind!🙂 But it’s not sooooo dreadful, just a tad squirmy, you know?

  8. Such a nice title and the first part sounds really good. Too bad the rest of it didn’t hold up as well. I found the Squirrel’s comment really interesting given the personal experience.

    • Stefanie – wasn’t Squirrel’s comment fascinating? It made such a difference to me when I heard that report from someone who actually knew her quite well. It’s an interesting book, and one that I would on the whole recommend to you because of your interest in the food chain and all things ecological. Get it out the library so you can always give it back if it grates!

  9. I think I would enjoy the first part but would be irritated with the over sharing about her love affair and the obsession with the food. I’d like to think that going away to learn about oneself would result in something more meaningful so I would become annoyed with the author.

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