I picked up Rosie Shaap’s Drinking with Men: A Memoirafter reading an excerpt from the book published in the New York Time Magazine, where she’s the “Drink” columnist. The book had promise: the essay was snappy, interesting, and about a topic I know a little bit about.
But buying up a memoir based on an excerpt is always a risk. Could what attracted me to the essay be sustained by the author throughout a full memoir?
Unfortunately, in this case, no.
The book is supposed to be a recounting of an unapologetic drinker and all the bars at which she’s been a regular. Instead, it’s a memoir lite shoved around the contrived outline of “this is the bar I was at when this happened,” whether she was in college, post 9/11, in Montreal (which, if I talk about poor use of adjective phrases for a moment, doesn’t need to be referred to as “the sophisticated Canadian city”) or pages upon pages about how she became a soccer fan.
Beyond the first two chapters, where she became a tarot card reader to bum beers on the Metro-North New Haven Line, and then dropped out of high school to follow the Grateful Dead, the book becomes one of the banal “I went to college, learn to drink, and things happened while I kept drinking” variety.
The main problem is that big things are brushed aside. Her dealing with 9/11 feels forced and focused around bars. In one passage, she recounts how she got blasted one night and ended up sobbing in one of her regular spots, but gives us no real inkling as to why. Her troubled relationship with her father is only brought up when he’s dying, and even that is given short shrift. There is no indication as to how she afforded a pricey private college in Vermont except for a passing mention that her father didn’t understand why it was more expensive than Cornell. There are European trips – one to France during World Cup – that are mentioned casually in the narrative, as if EVERYONE jaunts to Europe with their English professor husbands. It smacks of privilege, which doesn’t ring true with her earlier stories of living in shitty apartments in rat-infested TriBeCa, and creates a glaring, silent hole in the book. Things just aren’t explained.
In the epilogue, the reader finds out that her husband, from whom she was estranged, died of cancer. I don’t buy the explanation that “this was a story I could not tell her.” If you’re writing a memoir, you need to go there, as painful and awful as there may be. Readers can tell if you don’t, as happened here.
I met with a few agents on a memoir book project I want to write, and they told me that unless something dramatic happened i.e. a shark bit off my arm, the writing would need to be absolutely stellar in order for a memoir to sell. Outside of those first two chapters, anyone could have told this kind of story. It’s the job of the writer to make me realize why this specific iteration of said story is so interesting, so special, so worth my time. That didn’t happen here.
I hate writing reviews like this. I really do. But I can’t lie to you guys. You read these reviews for my honest opinion, and here it is, ugly as it may be.
I know it is hard to write a bad review but think of the time you have saved someone like me who might have picked the book up otherwise. There are so many books out there and just not enough time to get them all in. Thanks for the review.