by Rachel Shukert
“I have to tell you: I love looking at myself in the mirror,” Rachel Shukert says at the start of her book. “I realize that coming from a person who has published two memoirs before the age of thirty, this admission is about as shocking as a teenage boy owning up to a furtive wank into a brittle notebook during an unsupervised study period.”
Funny, self-deprecating and never reticent when it comes to sex, Shukert takes an honest look at one of the most unanchored period of her life. Freshly graduated from NYU and completely broke, she lands a nonspeaking and nonpaying role in an experimental play. The respected-though-insane director arranges a European tour, and on the way, she manages to score an unstamped passport. Now able to spend as much time in Europe as she pleases, she decides to stay in Amsterdam after the tour ends. The phone call home is just the beginning of the strange and hilarious conversations with her mother:
“You can’t stay in Europe forever!” she ranted. “What are you, some kind of refugee? You’ll be deported! The immigration people will kidnap you in the middle of the night and send you back in shackles! Your credit will be ruined and you’ll never get health insurance. You’ll go straight to jail, or worse!”
I assured her that as long as I resisted joining a terrorist cell, this was highly unlikely.
“What do you think you’re going to do for money?” she asked vehemently, switching tack. “How are you going to support yourself?”
“How do I support myself in New York?”
“Oh no,” she said. “No, no, no. If you think I’m going to schlep to Western Union and wire you money every two weeks, you are out of your fucking mind.”
I said I had enough money to get by for a while, and besides, I would be working.
She scoffed. “In Amsterdam? Feh. I don’t even want to think about it.”
She goes to live with two old friends, Jeroen and Mattijs, who are in the process of securing government funding for their theater company. Day-to-day Dutch culture both amuses and frustrates her — what with trash-sorting akin to godliness, and the unavailability of seasonal allergy and lactose intolerance medication. Perhaps the most baffling is what she calls “The Law of Phil Collins:”
Given: In every bar, café, shop, or other public place in the Netherlands where background music is played, every fourth song will always be a song by Phil Collins.
“What are you talking about?” one man said to me, in shock. “The whole world loves Phil Collins.” I was not permitted a follow-up question. The drum solo from “In the Air Tonight” was coming up.
The trouble with reading an excellent, supremely funny book is that I could probably read the whole thing aloud to passerby (though some of it not while small, parroting children are present), and as such, I could flip open just about any page and excerpt it here. Shukert never falls into the navel-gazing, “look how important and witty I am” trap that other memorists might — she is who she is, and that’s how she writes. It’s refreshing, having an author talk about both good times and also the most embarrassing, since any good writer knows that the humiliating stuff is really just more writing fodder. (All my best personal stories are the embarrassing ones.)
Perhaps where she becomes most honest is when it comes to her serious, though flawed and ultimately failed, relationship with a man named Pete. She’s the “other woman” in this story, as Pete is common law married to someone else. His romance and intense feelings keep her justifying their arrangement longer than she should. She doesn’t hesitate to point out that everyone else saw the end coming, and that she was acting like a naive idiot (as you do).
I’ve never been one to drown my sorrows in a carton of Ben and Jerry’s. Not when good old-fashioned grain alcohol nourishes the body and the soul.
This is not a group-hug, Elizabeth Gilbert-style memoir, and the world is better for it.
Full disclosure: This book was sent to me along with four others for review purposes from Harper Perennial. I thank them for dedicating a small marketing write-off to my site, and I will continue to be fair in my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.