By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune reviews Ariel Levy’s new memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply”, which tells the story of what comes before and after the death of Levy’s son whom she gave birth to at 19 weeks.
It’s an act of courage to hunt for meaning within grief, particularly if the search upends your life and shakes out the contents for all the world to sift through.
Ariel Levy embarks on the hunt beautifully in her new memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” (Random House, 224 pages, $27) which builds upon “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” the New Yorker essay for which she received the 2014 National Magazine Award for Essays and Criticism.
“Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is about the death of Levy’s infant son. She gave birth at 19 weeks, and the baby died within minutes. “The Rules Do Not Apply” is the story of what comes before and after his death.
“Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled,” she writes.
What comes before is the stuff of early adulthood, love, heartbreak, marriage, career, albeit told through the lens of someone who weaves narratives for a living and for whom “career” means, for example, traveling to rural South Africa to track down Caster Semenya, a female Olympic runner whose gender has been questioned around the world.
Levy worked as a contributing editor at New York Magazine for 12 years. In 2008 she’s hired as a staff writer at The New Yorker. David Remnick, the storied New Yorker editor, sends Levy a bouquet of flowers to welcome her aboard and signs it, ‘As ever, David Remnick.’
“Are you sure it doesn’t say, ‘As if?’ ” Levy’s wife, Lucy, jokes.
“Nowhere to go but down,” her father tells her.
It’s a dream gig, and Levy relishes it, telling stories from all over the globe and profiling the likes of Nora Ephron and Maureen Dowd.
In her mid-30s, she’s ready to become a mother.
“Fertility meant nothing to us in our 20s; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder,” she writes. “In our early 30s, we remembered it existed and wondered if we should check on it, and then abruptly, horrifyingly it became urgent: Somebody find that dragon! It was time to rouse it, get it ready for action.
“But the beast had not grown stronger during the decades of hibernation. By the time we tried to wake it, the dragon was weakened, wizened. Old.”
Suddenly whatever time she and her friends spent not getting pregnant in their 20s and 30s seems utterly squandered, Levy writes.
At 38, she gets pregnant, but that pregnancy ends abruptly and tragically, when she’s in Mongolia on a New Yorker assignment.
Her grief is all-encompassing and leaves her unmoored, searching for answers, both medical (what went wrong?) and metaphysical.
At a friend’s 40th birthday party, a guest, upon learning that Levy is that friend, tells her, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s a terrible thing to say, the sort of sentence that brushes away a person’s grief as part of a larger, divine plan.
“The Rules Do Not Apply” is a search for meaning, not reason. It doesn’t seek an explanation (outside of the medical one) for the death of Levy’s son, any more than it seeks to explain away the love, fear, frustration and other experiences and emotions that take place within her lifetime. Her grief becomes a new part of her, something to understand and get used to.
“When I was young,” she writes. “When I had no idea that all over the city, all over the world, there were people walking around sealed in their own universes of loss, independent solar systems of suffering closed off from the regular world, where things make sense and language is all you need to tell the truth.”
She’s brave and generous to share her story, which manages to be beautiful, even as it’s stark and wrenching.
“The 10 or 20 minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic,” Levy writes. “There is nothing I would trade them for. There is no place I would rather have seen.”
I’m grateful she takes us there too.