Mennonite in a Little Black Dressby Rhonda Janzen Original Publication Date: October 13 2009
Length: 241 pages
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
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Not long after Rhonda Janzen turned forty, her world turned upside down. It was bad enough that her husband of fifteen years left her for Bob, a guy he met on Gay.com, but that same week a car accident left her seriously injured. Needing a place to rest and pick up the pieces of her life, Rhonda packed her bags, crossed the country, and returned to her quirky Mennonite family’s home, where she was welcomed back with open arms and offbeat advice.
Writing a memoir is walking a fine line. It’s not a biography, so I don’t want to read someone’s life story. It’s supposed to be about collection of experiences with a unifying thread. And even though things don’t have to move in logical order, like they might in a novel, that unifying thread and theme is at the heart of every good memoir. Otherwise, what you end up with is tales that are better suited to a blog than a book, and I think that happened here.
This book was enjoyable, overall. The writing is well-done, as Janzen is an English professor herself. She can be sly and funny and at times, laugh-out-loud witty. Many of her stories are self-deprecating in the best possible ways, and even when she’s lightly poking fun at her Mennonite background, she gives credit where it’s due. I also love that Janzen is audience-aware enough to realize that we might need a crash course is Mennonite history, and provides us an entertaining one. She’s self-aware also, and admits some of her mistakes in print when talking about her marriage, which cannot be an easy thing to do.
However, what keeps this from being anything more than an entertaining read for me is the lack of cohesiveness. The first sixty pages and the last thirty pages of this book are the superb. There’s a common theme, and Janzen is at both her most honest and her funniest. Unfortunately, the middle loses ground and seems quite aimless at times. There are several anecdotes in the middle of the book that don’t add to my understanding of Janzen, her family, her marriage, or her Mennonite background. At times, everything seems irrelevant to the story I believe she’s trying to tell, which is what keeps this from being a stand-out memoir for me.
Final Impression: This is a quick, funny, and entertaining read that seems a bit loss at time. I enjoyed it, but I would have hated paying full price for it, and I’ll probably give it away to a used bookstore. I’d give it a 3/5 star rating.