Some women spend their whole lives searching for the perfect black dress or the best waterproof mascara. I am not one of them. I’ve spent my adult life prowling bookshelves for the modern day reincarnation of my favorite authors — Nora Ephron, Erma Bombeck, Jean Kerr and Laurie Colwin — all rolled into one. It’s a tall order. These writers were masters of spinning extraordinary stories from life’s ordinary details. They were the sisterhood of thinking locally and writing globally.
Good news: I have finally found their successor. Her name is Mary Laura Philpott, which just sounds like the name of person who will tell a cozy tale with an edge of steel. The book is “I Miss You When I Blink,” so named for something Philpott’s son said when he was little and cute. Fear not, however; this isn’t a supposedly adorable memoir from the “kids say the darndest things” school. If your kids are over the age of 10, you know how annoying these can be.
Philpott’s essays appear chronologically, in direct correlation to how much I enjoyed them (with the best ones at the back of the book). Growing up, she was a young Tracy Flick — “Every check mark, every gold star, confirmed it: I succeed, therefore I am. ” She was a reader and a budding writer. She fainted a lot; her family moved around a lot. Like many women of a certain age (present company included), she learned everything she thought she needed to know about relationships from watching “Thirtysomething” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” — which turned out not to be the best teachers.
These aren’t earth-shattering revelations, but Philpott shares them in a refreshingly straightforward way, like a new friend getting you up to speed on the major tent poles of her life. You have a sense that she’s building up to something big. That’s because she is.
My favorite part of the book — the second half — begins with “The Expat Concept,” where Philpott, her husband and their young kids temporarily relocate from Atlanta to Dublin. This is where she runs into the truth behind the adage, “Wherever you go, there you are.” As she puts it, “Our daily lives had not transformed with our relocation, except perhaps to get a bit lonelier.” Anyone who has spent time with toddlers can relate to the tedium of the routine, and also the necessity of it.
The loneliness gathers steam. Philpott’s kids grow older and more independent; like many moms, she’s both relieved and at a loss for how to fill the space they used to take up. She dabbles in guitar. She volunteers (miserably and relatably). She adds a “guest seat” to her home office, hoping people might “drop by in the mornings or pop in after the kids were down in the evenings for a glass of wine and a little conversation.” Nobody drops by. The seat remains empty and becomes a metaphor for something bigger — something that’s missing in Philpott’s traffic-clogged life in Atlanta. The cars are a metaphor, too. So many cars, so little movement.
Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that Philpott is a sad sack. She’s refreshingly honest and very funny, especially when, at a much-anticipated kid-free dinner party, she finds herself in an endless “momversation” (my term, feel free to borrow) on the subject of chicken salad. Boiled or baked? Shredded or chopped? Grapes or no grapes? To salt or not to salt? I chortled as Philpott fumed through dinner: “I had to concentrate to keep from shaking my head no no no, to keep from yelling, SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP. . .Fifteen minutes in, I wanted to scream, ‘Is anyone having some genuine feelings about something? Does anyone have something fascinating or funny or weird to discuss?’ ”
Please seat me next to Philpott at the next baby shower or book-club meeting. We think alike.
As the book progresses, you come to understand that your new friend is heading toward a crisis of sorts. I’m not going to call it a midlife crisis because a) she doesn’t (thankfully) and b) the term is an insult to this author’s thoughtful, honest account of her own reckoning. She doesn’t run out and buy a red convertible; she doesn’t acquire a boy toy or get a face tattoo. Instead, she takes a long, hard look at her life and has difficult conversations with people she loves. She upends the status quo in a way that might not be sexy or earth-shattering but is undeniably brave. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.
Like her literary forebears, Philpott has an eye for detail: the ant lugging half a Cheerio, the notched edge of a leaf, the eerie aimlessness of a Roomba. But her real gift lies in making the connection between the small moments and the big ones, so you feel you’ve walked into a complicated, glittering web by the time you finish “I Miss You When I Blink.”
When I turned the last page, I walked straight to the nearest deli and bought a container of chicken salad: cubed, with tarragon and walnuts, light on the mayo. It was delicious, like this book.