The Book About Nothing
After a particularly stressful week, the only thing I wanted to do for the weekend was snuggle up in bed with a relaxing, soothing book. Luckily for me, I picked up The Slippery Year: A Meditation on Happily Ever After, by Melanie Gideon, the story of a woman who pours over the small, comforting details of each day. By examining each humble moment in Gideon’s life, I was able to step away from my own stress and let go, one page at a time.
While looking at the front cover, I thought at first that I had received a misprinted copy. The image and text on the book jacket are slightly crooked, like the entire thing got jammed in the printer. The fore-edge of the book itself is untrimmed, which contributes to the erratic look that for a few minutes, I thought was created unintentionally. After checking with the publisher, however, I realized that, yes, the cover was supposed to look like that.
With a title like The Slippery Year and the topsy-turvy appearance of the front cover, I half expected Gideon’s first memoir to be a rough journey. But it is just the opposite. Gideon’s calm, slice-of-life essays, which are catalogued by month and in chronological order, are almost entirely devoid of drama of any kind. The most stressful thing Gideon must endure in is a weekend of camping with her husband and their nine-year-old son, Ben. Although middle-aged Gideon worries—she is concerned that she is not aging gracefully enough and that she and her husband could one day become one of those couples who doesn’t sleep in the same bed—she dwells on her thoughts and worries, but does not mention any real, current problems in her life. Throughout most of the memoir, Gideon goes to the grocery store, gets her hair done, picks up her son at school, and goes on vacation. At first, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. This woman dares to call her year “slippery?” If this is slippery, then I’ve surely fallen off the cliff years ago.
I forced myself to imagine a world in which my biggest worry was that in the process of getting my hair straightened, it had turned out too straight. It was difficult, but after a while, I managed to get lost in Gideon’s land of the mundane, where it’s dreadfully embarrassing to pick up her son a day early from summer camp, and unbelievably stressful to wait in the long line of cars to pick up her son from school. If Gideon overcomes even the tiniest of challenges, like getting through an entire shopping trip at Trader Joe’s without having a meltdown, she is grateful. And soon, I came to expect that within the safe walls of Gideon’s memoir, nothing too terrible was going to happen. Although there is one touching month in the memoir (December) that chronicles the death of the family dog, Bodhi, most of the stories in the book are smooth sailing for Gideon. And like watching an old rerun of Seinfeld or rereading my well-worn copy of The House at Pooh Corner, The Slippery Year is a safe place to meditate on the little things for a while.
Gideon tells short, often amusing anecdotes about her family, her childhood, and her friends. The stories are a breeze to read and I imagine the memoir may be on a list of “Easy Beach Reads!” this summer. Although Gideon does not express any hobbies or interests beyond spending time with her family, sometimes it’s nice to read a few pages about how wonderful it is to sleep on a comfortable, new mattress. And that’s it. The Slippery Year is not going to win the Pulitzer or anything, but there’s something Zen in the way Gideon appreciates the small details in her life. In a New York Times interview, Gideon herself calls it “a book about nothing.” And although it took me a few chapters to really get into the rhythm of reading about, essentially, well, “nothing,” it gradually became very soothing to follow Gideon through each slow, simple day.
In The Slippery Year, Gideon leaves out a few key details about her life that made the book feel one-dimensional. Although there are three central characters—Gideon, her husband, and her son, Ben—Gideon’s husband is never referred to or addressed by name. Instead, he is called only, “my husband.” Five pages before the end of the book, the reader finally finds out that Gideon’s husband is also named Ben. Although I can understand that Gideon probably wanted to eliminate confusion by only having one Ben in the story, I was more distracted by her husband’s apparent namelessness. Additionally, Gideon never talks about her career, although she alludes to having an office in her home, and speaks at a book conference in one brief passage. But because Gideon’s daily work life is not mentioned, I felt that Gideon and her husband (whose job is not mentioned at all) were keeping something from me. The omission of these small but important details made me feel so out of the loop that I felt distracted throughout the book.
Although The Slippery Year is by no means a flawless memoir, it was a good choice for me to read after a difficult week. Like eating a warm bowl of chicken soup while recovering from the flu, I was not challenged, surprised or changed after reading Gideon’s memoir, but I did feel slightly rejuvenated. Sometimes it’s better, and certainly more exciting to read an intense, page-turning masterpiece. But sometimes, literary chicken soup is all you want.