Monday, September 5, 2011

Book Review: and I shall have some peace there by Margaret Roach

I like biographical books describing someones sudden change in life, travel to new places, or how they deal with new environments and experiences.  There are many great books about such challenges, from very introspective, to nature writing, to childhood tragedies.

So, when I picked up this book, I thought it would be about something similar, how a person did find peace on her own little dirt road.

Margaret Roach was an editor at Martha Stewart Living for many years, and lived a fast and stressed Manhattan life.  On the weekends she drove up to a cottage she owned a few hours north of New York City, where she tended a garden on a slope near the Berkshire mountains.

In the book she describes how she quits her job, leaves the city, and moves up to the cottage (hmm, I just realize that I have no idea how big her house is or how it looks), to live there full-time.  This is when the trouble starts, both in reality for her, and with the book.  She never describes WHY she left, what it was she wanted to get away from.  It is just very vague. Same thing when she is in her cottage, WHY is she lost and feel invaluable?  Her writing is great, but the content is fragmented, and there is hint after hint, but very little data about her (except she needs to point out several times that she is very petite and only a size 2, and a vegetarian for 30 years... it gets a bit tiresome).  I wish that she had described the situations and challenges better.  After reading the book I can't even picture her garden or house, nor the landscape it is situated in. I can picture many of her snakes though...  It is just not descriptive in a sense where you can understand, it is just fragments, like specks of paint on an old T-shirt.

She leaves her job at the start of the American recession in 2008, while the health care debate is going full steam and we are about to elect a new president.  The world is full of war, environmental problems, health care issues, unemployment disasters, and stock market crashes.  But all she cares about is to move to her little cottage, tend her garden and be alone.  That is all well, but she never seems to realize that she is incredibly lucky by obviously having amassed a fortune big enough to buy such a place, not work for pay, and still be able to have health insurance, enough food, and all others of life necessities. This is not how most people's lives are, so if she want us to understand her personal challenges and life story she better have to describe them better because most people would LOVE to be in her position. But, I have a feeling she thought that writing this book would be a great way to get some more money (she says so), so the content of the book was less important than that it was a book, period.

Maybe many upper-class women at a similar age (50s) can connect with her feeling of being lost in the world, but I cannot.  Is that because my world is filled with valuable things such as education of a new generation and research that improves society, knowledge and people around me...?  I can see that if you work at Martha Stewart Living how mostly caring about wall color, having a perfect geranium, and collecting green glass could get tiresome in the end.  Tiresome and maybe with a loss of doing things that really matter in the world.  But the solution to this would not be to create a garden just for you, but to do something that matters and brings change to many, I would think.  But Margaret Roach did not. There is a lack of balance here, and the lack of balance consist throughout the whole book.

She really lives a luxurious life in that she could make this decision and spend 2 years gardening and write a book...  but she seems totally unaware of what is going on in other people's lives and the world and is 100% self-centered.  In fact, after reading the book I must say that she portrays herself as very selfish.  Many people would love to have a garden they could spend all their time in, but few can realize this dream.  Margaret does, and she opens up her garden to the public a few times a year, but the rest of the time it is mostly her and the garden and a few friends.  The worst things that seem to happen is when a gray fox family moves into the garden and starts a communal fox bathroom in a corner, which she fights day after day with coyote urine. She comes through as a spoiled Manhattan rich girl, unfortunately.  I am sure she is a nice person, but her self-centered focus gets tiresome early on in the book.

Her deep fear of snakes is a theme in the book, as is her longing for 'being someone'.  So, there are snakes, and I am afraid of them too, and eventually she deals with them and manages her fear.  But everything is so personal, in the sense that you get the feeling she thinks the frogs are there for her, and her only.

People love her book, and her blog (which is equally self-promoting and selfish, I think), but I got rather annoyed.  If you want to make the world a better place, then go out and do something about it.  Make small changes in your local community if you like, you don't have to join the Peace Corps.  It is a great way to feel important and valuable, if you become valuable to others and creative positive change. (All Margaret seems to have done is to flip burgers on the grill once in a while at a local community picnic.)  But hunkering down behind a garden gate that you rarely open more than once a week and become an hermit living on past earned money, it is luxury and not a challenge.  Well, maybe a mental challenge, of course, depending on how your mind works.  I don't like to critize people that write biographies and stories like this, but I have to say that this book rubbed me so much the wrong way.

Summary: Rich girl moves to country where she writes and gardens, full of self-pity, selfishness, fear of snakes, and in the end realizes she is somebody. Grade: C (but the writing is good).
(Note: I am sure Margaret Roach is a nice person, and this review is only based on the book. But if you write books like this you set yourself up to get criticized, especially if you turn out to be as navel-gazing as portrayed in this book.)


Sarah said...

Not enough people point out how LUCKY some of these people are who get to write books like this. This is the second time I've read a review like this; the other was a review for Eat, Pray, Love. Also, I've noticed that so many memoirs (which seem to be increasingly popular lately) are kind of meta, they write about getting the book deal and the process of writing the book and using the money to support themselves and getting advances ... etc etc etc. It makes me wonder, does this dilute the quality of the book?

LS said...

Hi Sarah - exactly! In this book, she starts to think that she needs some money and then she includes in the book the process of getting it written. So it becomes a book about a book, which is not very exciting and very much meta.

Yes, these authors should count their blessings and give back to the world instead of complaining and feel sorry for themselves.

Bcteagirl said...

I agree completely! It drove me nuts how she focused in on the compliment payed by her to some expensive hotel guru and kept repeating it at least twice a chapter as if it were a mantra about how special she is. They get paid to compliment you! I spent the whole book waiting for her to actually *do* something.

LS said...

Bcteagirl - thank you for your comment. I was also waiting for something to happen in the book, and couldn't really believe it when I had reached the end and she was still unpeaceful, selfish, annoying, and so self-absorbed that she didn't realize how us readers would interpret her book. I never got the whole guru thing, neither the dating service, nor the stupid car tire thing ("remind me to get winter tires for the SAAB"). There is something about this book that still makes me upset. I think it was the whole idea that she feel sorry for herself when she really is incredibly lucky and rich.