Friday, January 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship" by Paul Lisicky

"What is it like to know a single human in time?"

In The Narrow Door, his poignant, gorgeously told memoir, novelist Paul Lisicky paints a picture of the two overarching relationships in his life—one with the late novelist Denise Gess, and one with his ex-husband, a poet he refers to as M. More snapshots from random moments in time than a fluid narrative, this is an account of how fundamentally our lives our changed by being needed and wanted, as well as being slighted and hurt.

Paul Lisicky met Denise Gess when the two were teaching assistants at Rutgers. Denise was larger than life, confident in front of a classroom or a crowd, and seemingly much more sure of her writing ability than Paul, who always felt as if he needed to throw up when teaching, and lacked the self-confidence in his own storytelling skills. The two quickly form a tight bond, borne of insecurities, a mutual love of Joni Mitchell, and the desire to succeed in the writing world.

The Narrow Door traces the path of Paul and Denise's friendship—the cherished moments and memories they shared, the secrets they kept from each other, the resentments and jealousies they tried to mask, and the way they rescued each other at times of need. Paul recounts the ways Denise changed his life, both for better and at times, for worse, and shares the pain her 2010 death from cancer caused him.

"Perhaps what we love about a friendship is that it makes us look over our shoulders, stay on our toes. We watch our words. There are never any rules to guide us, no contracts, no bloodlines, just the day after day of it. It's work, though it pretends it's painless and easy. And beneath everything: the queasy possibility that it all might end tomorrow."

This is also the story of his relationship with M, one which started as a friendship and blossomed into romance. Lisicky recounts the ways love changes us, the ways we often take its presence for granted, and how easy it is to ignore the problems and hope they go away. How do we make the difficult decision of how long to fight for love, and when to walk away?

The book jumps around from memory to memory, from the 1980s when Paul and Denise first met, to 2010, following her death and as Paul's relationship with M begins disintegrating. At times it's a little disorienting because you have to remember where the characters were at that particular point in time, but Lisicky reels you back in fairly quickly. It also tells of the things he focused on to avoid focusing on his anguish and loneliness, although I wished he didn't dwell as much on those things, but how can he change what he felt?

I wasn't familiar with Lisicky's work before finding this book, but I was really dazzled by the way he writes. If you've ever had a friendship that dominated so much of your life, and/or a relationship that held your heart for so long, perhaps The Narrow Door will resonate for you. And even if you can't identify with what Lisicky went through, the sheer poignancy of his emotional account will grip you.

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