Mary-Louise Parker never intended to write a memoir. In fact, she’s a little freaked that “Dear Mr. You” (Scribner, 225 pp., $25), an intimate and imaginative book of letters addressed to men, is being labeled as one.
“I feel bad when people say ‘memoir,’ because who writes a memoir that is only about how they were affected by one gender? The pieces are about me but also ... not,” she says, her voice rough as silk on a ragged fingernail.
Parker is sitting in the restaurant of the Beverly Wilshire, her hair mussed. She vibrates energy — you can almost see waves come off her as in a cartoon. She takes in everything, from the waiter who loudly drops a plate (she murmurs, “Poor guy”) to the appearance of Donald Trump on a bar TV. (“He’s not going to be our president, is he?” she asks waspishly).
This combination of sensitivity and observation is put to delicate use in “Dear Mr. You,” an epistolary collection written over four months — some of it while Parker was in the hospital recovering from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia and septic shock. The 34 chapters are addressed to men Parker has loved as well those she barely knew.
“Dear Mr. Blue” is a charming ode to a loincloth-wearing hippie who supplied avocados and figs to the food co-op where she once worked: a missed opportunity. “I kept saying I wanted sweetness and someone truthful,” she writes, “but I was fussy about the form that sweetness might take.”
“Dear Former Boyfriend” describes an opportunity fully indulged: a tempestuous night of squabbling that culminates in a Mexican restaurant. “There was such a fog around me that I felt like I had entered a Whitesnake video. … I watched from the ceiling as I took my fork and stabbed you in the hand that was reaching, again, toward the end of my guacamole.”
Parker says she approached each tale with gratitude — even “Dear Cerberus,” which feverishly transforms a trio of exes into a “mangy dog with three heads.” She explains, “I didn’t want it to be feeling sorry for myself, so that’s why I wrote it kind of like a fairy tale.” But also, “I had to give them a little plastic surgery. I didn’t want somebody’s wife to feel bruised because, you know, there’s sex in there.”
Although she’s always written stories and kept journals, Parker says her work has often been created for other people. “I wrote a children’s book for a boyfriend, and I wrote a novella for somebody once. I would write poems for people. And letters.” The letters that most influenced her, however, were those by her late father, who wrote “amazing thank-you notes.”
“To me, this book is a collection of thank-you notes,” she says, including one to the doctor who saved her life.
It’s also very much a tribute to her dad, evoked lovingly in several letters. The tour de force is “Dear Oyster Picker,” a work of emotional gymnastics that conjures the unknown man who picked the oysters for her dying father’s last supper, while also weaving in a portrait of her dad’s life and death.
Her father, Parker writes, “worked in coal mines and suffered on battlefields and in jungles; he rarely got the respect he deserved and was betrayed, abandoned, robbed, shot at, fired, hit by a train twice, electrocuted, and dropped from a plane with a faulty parachute … and survived brain and heart valve surgery. In spite of all that by the end of his life he was as grateful a human as I have ever encountered and he more than deserved those oysters.”
Still, if you look closely at these letters, you’ll find a sidelong portrait of Parker, a mosaic of autobiographical shards. “Dear Risk Taker,” written to a musician who inspired the young Parker (and perhaps inflamed her fantasies of rebel boyfriends), offers a glimpse of a college girl testing her newfound freedom, “having pretend breakdowns in the cafeteria just for laughs” and “wearing opera gloves to breakfast.”
“Dear Mr Cabdriver,” couched as an apology, indirectly plunges us into the emotional maelstrom of being jilted while pregnant, as the narrator relives a screaming fight with a taxi driver while she was in a state of emotional distress: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone. It hurts to even breathe.”
There’s even a letter to Parker herself secreted inside “Dear Movement Teacher.” It’s an evaluation from a college professor who writes, among other things, that "[s]he appears spaced-out and bored” and "[h]er use of sexuality is offensive.”
Looking back, Parker says, “He is the one who hated me the most. …But he was evolved enough to allow me to show him a different version of me. To do some version of what he was saying and still be myself.”
The late Mark Strand is another mentor who appears unnamed in the book. Parker is a serious poetry fanatic who reels off dozens of names when asked about her favorites, among them Anne Sexton, Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, Stanley Kunitz, Bob Hicok and Yusef Komunyakaa.
She rhapsodically describes her recent reading of “Crowning,” Kevin Young’s poem about childbirth: “You feel like you have both landed somewhere and you are still moving. It’s one of the nicest sensations that I have access to as a person.”
As a single working mother with young children, she says, “I don’t feel like I have loads and loads of pleasure every day. I don’t have a lot of vices anymore. I can’t really afford to have them. I am tired,” she says with a deep sigh. “For years, I didn’t read an actual book because I felt it was too luxurious. I felt I had to go to sleep, or I wouldn’t wake up and do the 80,000 things I have to do. But now it’s high on my list of pleasures — along with when my children, without coaxing, suddenly hold hands.”
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