“The Leaving Season”
W.W. Norton, $29.95
The art of the personal essay may be its seeming artlessness. Reading a good essay is like sitting next to an interesting stranger on a train while she tells you something about her life and the way she views the larger world. Among contemporary essayists, Jo Ann Beard, Phillip Lopate, Rachel Cusk, and Laurie Stone would be delightful seatmates on a long journey. Kelly McMasters is another.
In "The Leaving Season," her poignant and engrossing memoir in essays, she tracks her evolution from corporate wannabe to writer and single mother, relocating in the process from the city to the country to suburbia. The chronology of the book isn't straightforward, but it has true narrative suspense.
Ms. McMasters opens with a take on her young sons' innocence in their selection of what to save in case of an emergency, like a house fire. In lieu of the prescribed necessities, such as bottled water, a first-aid kit, and a flashlight, "They stuff their [pillow] cases with toys, a tae kwon do belt, candy." As her story progresses, Ms. McMasters reveals her own willful innocence, or denial, about what is salvageable during the crisis of her failing marriage to R., a painter eight years her senior.
After R. proposes, she drags her heels for a while. She's actually never planned on being married, and enjoys her nontraditional relationship with R., their maintenance of separate residences. She tells us, "I liked the space between us." And "I imagined marriage to be like stretching my body across a bed of nails and willing it not to hurt, grinning while the blood trickled down my back." She even cries for three days after finally saying yes.
Yet she and R. eventually marry, and move to an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, an arrangement that a full-time artist and his minimally employed wife should be able to afford. There are early warning signs of trouble. R. becomes seriously ill and their ramshackle house turns out to be a sinkhole of costly repairs and upkeep. Expenses like $2,500 to fill the empty propane gas tank, in order to heat the place, use up Ms. McMasters's life savings, and she scurries to find extra freelance jobs. She sees genuine beauty in the bucolic landscape, but it's constantly punctuated by the gunfire of local hunters, and "R. seemed hollow and cold, like the house."
On Sept. 11, 2001, she is 25, still single, and living with a friend "in a windowless two-bedroom" in Lower Manhattan. She has left a low-level law firm job, where she wore the requisite suit, to take a job as an assistant editor at a tech magazine where the atmosphere and the dress are more casual. Early that morning, she boards the subway to the World Trade Center stop to keep a doctor's appointment before work. She intends to go up the stairs that open directly into the W.T.C. lobby, but the way there is unusually crowded, hampering her passage. The disaster has begun, and out in the street she's close enough to the scene to realize, after moments of shocked disbelief, that people are jumping from the windows of the first stricken tower.
"We could see their ties, we could see their suit jackets, we could see their legs scrambling as if peddling imaginary bicycles."
In the aftermath of the attacks, the tech magazine downsizes, and Ms. McMasters discovers that she's disappointed in being kept on. She no longer wants to live in the city, where "a suit is not armor." This revelation surely contributes to her continuing trajectory toward a different kind of life.
Like Rachel Cusk, Kelly McMasters writes with urgency and honesty about being in an unhappy marriage. "When we moved to the country, R. fit in so well that I stopped recognizing him." She refers to his "feral quality" and his purchasing of guns. They argue in fierce whispers while their toddler is asleep. One time R. takes out a gun.
But she lingers, trying to mend things between them, and regenerate feelings that have all but disappeared. She tries to come up with reasonable excuses for his rages: "low blood sugar? drinking? his bank account?" And she has some insight into her own unreasonable tenacity. "Sometimes it feels like my brain takes a while to understand that I am, in fact, in danger or discomfort."
In a unique effort to right things in a badly disordered life, Ms. McMasters opens (the only) bookstore in their rural community. At first, it's a daydream of a family project: R. would make an artist's print shop out of an adjoining space. "Perhaps, I considered, if we partnered in a shop it would remind us of how good we used to be together." The venture offers some genuine moments of joy, but it's hardly a spoiler alert to say that neither the bookshop nor the marriage survive.
For a while, as her marriage disintegrates, Ms. McMasters has high hopes of renewing a romance with her college boyfriend — the "Heathcliff" of her youth — with whom she exchanges a lengthy series of intense emails. But even after that promising possibility suddenly, inexplicably, vanishes, she is accepting of her status, and forward-looking. "I am still alone, but I am no longer lonely."
One of R.'s initial attractions for Ms. McMasters is his painting. She notes the movies that glamorize male artists and their female models, and imagines that she and R. "could be like Hopper and his wife." After resisting her offers to sit for him — "I don't like painting girlfriends" — R. finally relents. But she's disappointed to realize "he was looking, but I was not being seen . . . I was simply a still life. . . ."
Years later, he paints a nude portrait of their young sons, and shares the image and their names on social media, causing a near catastrophe with Child Protective Services. One of the boys, with a disarming lack of guile, believed that their clothing would be added later. "He saw himself as a paper doll."
Throughout the book, Ms. McMasters displays a keen sense of place. Her life in the city "was all dark angles, hard surfaces, sharp shadows." "For me, the country was an escape, a jolt of color after years of concrete gray."
Of the North Shore of Long Island — "the sanitized suburbia" where she and the boys settle after her separation from R. — she says, "Sometimes, the blocks in my town reminded me of cardboard boxes of Shake 'n Bake stacked in a row at the food store. . . ." But that uniformity also offers a feeling of safety for her and the children. She writes with tenderness and undiluted pleasure about motherhood, despite the struggles of running a one-parent household while holding down a teaching job, dealing with the legal and emotional aspects of divorce, and, of course, writing.
In her essay "Peonies," Zadie Smith (yet another favorite) states that "Writing is control." I believe this is true for Kelly McMasters — that in writing this vivid, searing memoir she's made a manageable shape out of what appear to be disparate disturbing events. As I read "The Leaving Season," I found myself rooting for her, in life and in art.
Hilma Wolitzer's most recent book is "Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket." She and her husband used to have a house in Springs.
Kelly McMasters is a professor of English at Hofstra University. She grew up in Shirley.