Rhoda Janzen begins "Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home" with a trifecta of midlevel tragedies: a hysterectomy, an automobile accident and a failed marriage. None is quite epic enough on its own to derail her, but together they conspire to make her rethink her life in Michigan and return to the California Mennonite community in which she was raised.
"What the hell," Janzen writes, after her car hits the skids on an icy road -- a crash both literal and metaphorical. "[I]t was so bad it couldn't get any worse. Bring on the Borscht, I thought. I went home for the holidays."
That's a great setup for a memoir: the sassy, modern prodigal daughter returning to her plain-wrap roots. It promises tension and conflict, but Janzen defeats the dramatic arc by undercutting her own sense of risk.
This begins before she returns to her parents' house, with the inclusion of gimmicky, multiple-choice questionnaires that pull us out of the narrative. (When her botched hysterectomy leaves her sporting a catheter and external urine bag, she lets readers check one of two options: "Yes, I want my husband to leave me pre-pee bag." or "No, I'd rather he left me post-pee bag.")
And it continues in California, where she takes for granted that we know about the Mennonites, a decision that minimizes the important issue of faith.
Faith, after all, is (or should be) at the heart of this memoir: Janzen has lost everything and is looking for a way to be redeemed. More interesting, her own faith is lapsed; she identifies as a secular humanist, and she regales us with Mennonite food fetishes and fashion faux pas even as she takes refuge with her family.
Late in the book, she makes an acknowledgment: "I'm gonna come right out and admit that I believe in God." But although she goes on to express her love of the Bible and ancient languages and claims to be on a first-name basis with God, nowhere does she describe her daily experience of religion. Nor does she discuss the costs, personal and cultural, of her pursuit of higher education -- forbidden to Mennonite women.
It is in describing her parents that Janzen finds her best voice. Her father, "once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States, is the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks pulled up snugly along the calf. He is a theologian who believes in a loving God, a servant heart, and a senior discount."
Her mother, Mary, emerges as a naïf-savant who tries to fix up her daughter with a first cousin. She brings moments of genuine humor to the story and Janzen's close bond with her is tenderly rendered, but one keeps wondering when the little black dress is going to come out of the closet.
Janzen, who teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Michigan, seems incapable of writing a declarative sentence. Instead, she falls into parenthetical asides on every page. The story rambles as Janzen introduces characters who never return, anecdotes that don't pay off and jokes with no punch line.
Writing about her manic-depressive husband, who controlled her wardrobe choices and eventually left her for a guy named Bob, she confesses: "I'll have my readers know that I have typed the bulk of this manuscript in a hideous red fur robe. Red fur! And I picked it! Sort of. What I mean is, my mother made it, and I'm wearing it. Why, I can't say. But, dammit, it's a tardy assertion of my individuation!"
What is happening here? Why the need to digress and self-deprecate? By not tell- ing her story authoritatively, Janzen not only diminishes the importance of her experience but also the legitimacy of her work.
This is all the more frustrating because Janzen is, at times, a fine, incisive writer, able to find meaning by artfully connecting small moments to larger ideas.
Toward the end of the book, she describes an afternoon spent with a spoiled toddler: "Poor Holden! Rhythm savant, whacker of sticks, kicker of shins! He bawled and twirled, and I just sat there. But a part of me recognized his dissatisfaction. He was the emissary of us all, we who felt we had not received our due, we who felt the late afternoon of our lives stung with fury and with sorrow."
Poor Janzen! She should have followed Holden's example by kicking a few shins -- and demanding we pay attention to her.
Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."