Ariel Levy had “it all:” a coveted job as a staff writer for the New Yorker, a home outside the city, a wife, and a baby on the way. That is until “it all” shattered at the cusp of comfort.
The Rules Do Not Apply is Levy’s memoir recounting the extremes of loss and the life that has come, and continues, along the periphery. Published last March, the book is an expanded dialogue of her award winning essay, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” and is a recounting of agony at its apex. As The New York Times puts it: “Turning from the essay to the book is an education in the messiness of grief.”
At 38, Levy goes on assignment to Mongolia and gives birth alone in her hotel room after nineteen weeks of pregnancy. Reading the tragedy unspool is painful and it’s only amplified by the divorce and loss of her home that follow. At its strongest, her voice is moving and her prose honest. As she describes this brief first and only meeting with her one child, her words latch onto the mind of the reader in a way that only meaningful narrative can. With the descriptions of the “thick and ghostly white rope” connecting their bodies, tiny formed fingernails, and blood pooling; Levy being the sole spectator of his breath becomes even more gut-wrenching. Guilt and sorrow manifest themselves in these tiny details of tragedy. However, through the bravery of her recounting, she invites us along as witnesses to life and the brutality of its ending. Knowing that he will not survive, she takes a photo of him on her cellphone while he’s still breathing, as a personal reminder of those moments when she was a mother. With her prose she unapologetically provides us with that same intimacy.
Like Levy, there are parts of this book that feel unbalanced. The narrative is peppered with shallow blanket statements stemming from either a fear of, or an unwillingness to, provide introspection in key moments. Generalities like “We can’t have it all” and “If this was possible, what else was possible?” are more artfully told through her anecdotes and begin to feel trite when stated plainly. These hollow phrases give her words a certain levity in key moments, undermining the gravity of her grief. Her deteriorating relationship is a great example. Between alcoholism and infidelity, there was blame to go around. Levy steps back from responsibility in the demise by impersonally claiming, “You have an affair because you are not getting what you want from your loved one.” In a moment when there is failure to be owned, she avoids it by only truly taking ownership of her grief. These cliches are padding to keep the reader from pain, they are Levy trying to tie all the loose ends together. Through their weakening of the prose, she proves her own point: grief is not graceful and humanity is messy.
Levy’s sense of guilt is clear in her many reassurances to the reader that her traveling is not to blame for the miscarriage. She goes to specialists who tell her it was a placental abruption. Meaning that plane or no plane: “It is ordained; it can never be otherwise.” From the beginning of the book, we watch Levy struggle to reconcile her desire to adventure and be protected as we also watch it escalate and snap. We watch what happens when it all shatters and no one can pick up the broken pieces but herself.
College is a time of failure. A time to experiment. A time when fate plays cruel tricks. When it makes miracles from broken pieces. Let Levy’s own story serve as a cautionary tale. Twenty-something, in love, with a dream job: she felt invincible. She was living in a world where she claimed to write the script to her own movie, where she was the one who had control. In the novel, she willingly admits her own privilege and that of many people in her circle. The story's climax proves that even the successful, the hard working, her, us - no one can have “it all.” She writes, “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.”
This book is witty, graceful, and bold. As Levy says, “There is something of value in trying to put the world into words.” What is clear by her work is that in a world where she has little control, writing is her way to regain her narrative. Despite this book’s shortcomings, its great bravery and genuine story make it a treasure to hold Levy’s world in our hands.