The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: “In Spite of Everything”

Divorce memoirs are everywhere these days. (Earlier this week, KJ Dell Antonia gave a good rundown of the startling abundance of recent releases in the divorce-porn subgenre.) But what sets Susan Gregory Thomas’ In Spite of Everything apart from other tales of charred families is the propulsive force of her writing, and her effort to connect her parents’ divorce, and later her own, to a larger generational narrative.

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, In Spite of Everything is the story of how Thomas’ alcoholic father abruptly—and in really just cinematically awful and shocking fashion—abandoned her family when she was 12 and her brother was 9, leaving lifelong psychological scars in his wake. It’s the story of how Thomas’ own perfect marriage eventually fell apart, but it’s also a fascinating account of the “mass divorces of the 1980s,” and how Generation X kids who’d been neglected by their own moms and dads grew into the offspring-obsessed helicopter parents of today. (Read In Spite of Everything and Lori Gottlieb’s “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” in the same week, as I did, and you’ll come away with a pretty solid understanding of how exactly we came to this frightening moment in American parenting.)

If you’ve ever thought about getting married, or wondered about how best to raise children, real or hypothetical, or had parents, put In Spite of Everything on your list. Thomas’ writing—and full disclosure, Susie and I are friends, and I fell in love with her prose years ago over email—is funny and searing and as profound as it is rollickingly funny:

Ask my grandmother if you might have a little lunch, and what you got was a sliced apple matted with cinnamon powder, or maybe Campbell’s beef consommé in a tempered glass mug ringed with the translucent flecks of whatever viscous pabulum it had last contained.

On just about every page, I gasped out loud in recognition of some character or situation. Thomas’ writing is strongest when she’s telling the amazing story of her own family history, past and present. Sometimes the Generation X generalizations feel a bit too pat, but then maybe I just glamorize my own undersupervised 1980s youth too much. I’d always thought a bit of neglect was a good thing, and since becoming a parent myself, I long to return to that “laissez-faire period of American child rearing” that Thomas characterizes as “just plain grim.” Still, as a field guide to the preoccupations of parents today—a time when, Thomas writes, our “lives center around our own kids’ childhoods, around saving them from the smallest pain”—In Spite of Everything is as good as it gets. It shows us how our parents’ screw-ups inevitably screw us, and how our own strenuous attempts to “reverse-engineer karma” can founder like even the best of marriages.