Review by Lara Lillibridge
Places We left Behind: A Memoir in Miniature is an essay collection—concise at 74 pages—exploring the cross-cultural marriage between Jennifer Lang, and her French-born and more religious husband. The pair move back and forth between Paris, Israel, and the United States, marrying, having children, changing jobs and trying to navigate their differences in religious practices and expectations. In the book’s eponymous essay Lang writes, “No matter where we reside, one of us will always rue the loss of the place we left behind.”
I love experimental forms, so I was hooked the minute I saw the flow chart at the beginning of the book. Similarly exciting to me, was the chapter “Between Seams,” which is written in the form of a poem, the lines mimicking the cracks in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where Jews push slips of paper into the cracks with their prayers written on them. In this way Lang is using the form as an active element of her narrative. Similarly, in her chapter entitled “Distort,” her enjambed lines give the feeling of distortion, allowing the reader one step closer to the writer’s interior.
Lang uses lists, diagrams, strike-through font, and footnotes in her as her collection alternates between micro-essays and poetry, keeping me engaged and slightly off-balance. But although her essays are brief, they are vibrant, containing enough physical description so that I could picture her homes in the various locations, and with lyrical description of the narrator’s interior, such as, “The next day, while packing, we fold our anger into the creases of our shirts and tuck it into the hems of our pants, making our suitcases overweight.”
I related to the narrator very much in her struggle to balance her own needs with those of her husband and children, and how she often swallowed her own needs in the process.
Our family dynamic is often 4:1, leaving me Odd Mom Out and uncomfortable in my own home, in my own skin.
I loved how the strike through text reinforced how the narrator didn’t want to admit to these feelings, even to herself. I have been in this same emotional place so many times before. This denying and attempted balancing of disparate needs feels very much part of the universal experience of mothering. Sometimes I feel as if the very idea of being a “good mother” requires us to give up large portions of ourselves and our dreams:
Tension is so loud it rumbles in my ears. In the dimness, I think about how far I’ve derailed from my dreams, how long ago I lost my inner compass, and how desperate I am to find my way back.
At its heart, this book is about finding a way to coexist in a family while still existing as your own person. Riveting and engaging, I devoured it in one sitting—it’s the perfect book for when you want to read something substantial, but don’t have time to devote to plowing through hundreds of pages.
From the book jacket: Born in the San Francisco Bay Area, Jennifer Lang lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serves as Assistant Editor for Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction. Often findable on her yoga mat—practicing since 1995, teaching since 2003—with her legs up her living room wall. Places We Left Behind is her first book and Landed: a memoir in pieces & poses will follow in October 2024.
Places We left Behind, by Jennifer Lang
Vine Leaves Press, 2023, $14.99.[paper] ISBN: 9783988320186
Lara Lillibridge (she/they) is the author of The Truth About Unringing Phones: Essays on Yearning (forthcoming with Unsolicited Press); Mama, Mama, Only Mama: An Irreverent Guide for the Newly Single Parent, and Girlish: Growing Up in a Lesbian Home, both with Skyhorse Publishing. Lara is the Interviews Editor for Hippocampus Magazine and Creative Nonfiction Co-editor for HeartWood Literary Magazine. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from West Virginia Wesleyan College.