A couple weeks ago, I was flipping through the Memoir edition of The New York Times Book Review. After reading the first sentences of Walter Kirn’s review of Foreverland by Heather Havrilesky, I had to stop, sit up a little straighter, and start again. Was this a take down?
First of all, the title of the review is
“Heather Havrilesky Compares Her Husband to a Heap of Laundry.”
Tone set. The review begins by informing the audience that Havrilesky dedicates the book to her husband. In Kirn’s words, she “pays him this brief honor as a prelude to writing endlessly about his flaws.”
In the next paragraph, Kirn describes the relationship between the author and her husband as “a marriage between a neurotic perfectionist and a formidably patient man…” Ouch. Kirn’s criticisms become less personal as he questions the universality of Havrilesky’s sweeping statements about what marriage is and means.
I was too caught up in the juiciness of the review that I hadn’t yet considered whether these criticisms were fair. It may not be my most endearing trait, but I love a good piece of author gossip. For example, this profile of actor Jeremy Strong that Michael Schulman wrote for The New Yorker and the resulting backlash from celebrities such as Jessica Chastain. And then there was the time food author Alison Roman gave an interview in which she criticized Marie Kondo and Chrissy Teigen and the internet went nuts. (There was a follow-up interview with Roman about a year later in The New Yorker where she had the chance to contextualize her comments.)
Getting back to Foreverland, a few days after reading the review, I saw Havrilesky was a guest on Longform, a podcast I regularly listen to. To my surprise, she is still married to the heap of laundry from the book. She expressed disappointment and felt her work had been misunderstood. For one thing, she is a published cartoonist and humorist. As Havrilesky points out in the interview, the book is meant to be not only truthful but also funny.
Apparently, the ladies on the TV show The View were also critical of Havrilesky for bad mouthing her husband. The author defended herself by saying that she was trying to present an honest portrait of what marriage looks like—the good bad and ugly. She suggested misogyny was at play in some people’s negative and personal attacks on both her book and her character.
I should start by saying, I haven’t yet read the book. I hadn’t initially planned to, but now I feel obligated to. And I want to.
As I said, I was at first all jazzed about the bad review. I was all “yeah! Take that lady!” But after hearing her speak, I had to reconsider. It is one thing to criticize a person’s writing, but it’s quite another to decide and print in an internationally renowned newspaper that an author is a “neurotic perfectionist,” and to imply that she is a bad person and a bad wife.
I don’t doubt that misogyny has played a role in the negative reviews of Havrilesky’s book. But I also wonder if some people feel threatened by her freedom to be so honest about her feelings towards her husband and about marriage. The author apparently writes in the book about developing a crush on another man. Some may say it’s cruel to be open with her husband about that. I’m inclined to think it takes a lot of guts. It must feel freeing to have her husband truly know her. I wonder if some people don’t envy that transparency—envy her dedication to being who she is no matter the cost.
As she says in the interview, although her husband was not initially thrilled with her including this chapter in the book, ultimately, the book has brought them closer together. Now, whether Havrilesky’s marriage is something the masses want to read about depends on her writing. I’ll withhold my judgment on that until after I’ve read the book.
- Foreverland can be found in the New Books section of the Derby Library.