In And The Heart Says Whatever, Emily Gould set out to flout the traditions of many women's memoirs. Her book is the antithesis of personal growth narratives like Eat, Pray, Love — and she may like it that way.
I spoke with Gould on the phone yesterday, and she explained her rejection of the expectations we've come to have of popular female memoirs. "While I was writing this book I had to really strenuously prevent myself from ever thinking even for a minute of what people would think or say about it, because if I had thought about that for a second I would have been totally paralyzed and wouldn't have been able to write it at all," she said. But beyond a desire not to consider her audience, Gould also wanted to avoid what she sees as a writerly pitfall: "I hate books that are like 'Oh the bad and foolish things I did, dumb old me.' I'm really put off by it and there's sort of a genre of women's writing that's sort of like, 'Oh goofy me, taking pratfalls' and I really, really didn't want to do that."
But several reviewers have been unimpressed with And the Heart, and Jessica Ferri's Time Out review is especially telling. She writes,
Gould's trials and tribulations seem neither impressive nor intriguing, mostly because the book feels bored with itself, as if it were forced into being.
Which is a shame, because there is no doubt, judging from her excellent blog, Things I Ate that I Love, that Gould is capable of writing with humor, smarts, even passion.
Of course, And the Heart is about a younger version of Gould, and Things I Ate is written by Gould now. While early-2000s Gould was consumed with status anxiety, Gould 2010 writes about cooking, books, her cat — and yes, yoga. She seems happier than her striving younger self, and she's more likable that way. And unlike Eat, Pray, Love, Gould's book doesn't really explain how she got there. In fact, though Gould mentions that she largely likes Gilbert's writing, her book is almost the anti-Eat, Pray, Love in that it refuses to frame its story as one of personal growth.
This may be the source of some critical frustration about And the Heart, and I too found myself wishing for more of a narrative arc. But Gould stubbornly resists this expectation, writing,
I can look back and recognize the things I've done and said that were wrong: unethical, gratuitously hurtful, golden-rule-breaking, et cetera. Sometimes the wrongness was even clear the time, though not as clear as it is now. But I did these things because I felt the pull of a trajectory, a sense of experience piling up the way it does you turn the pages of the novel. I would be lying if I said I was a different person now. I am the same person. I would do it all again.
Gould's account of her early twenties will ring true to many young people who have longed to prove their worth without being totally sure what that worth is. But the desire to be "really good at something," as she writes — and its consequent envy and suggestibility — aren't especially attractive, and they're not feelings everyone admits to. This turns out be a constant in Gould's book, whether she's talking about hoping her new puppy is dead or having sex with her ex-boyfriend "to see if we were still in love." Gould cops to feelings most of us hide — or at least excoriate ourselves for if we do reveal them — and this was at least in part a conscious decision.
When I asked her to elaborate on some of the difficulties of female autobiographical writing she'd mentioned in a recent New York Magazine interview, she explained,
I'm not sure what people want of women who write about themselves. They seem to want a lot of different contradictory things at the same time. They want you to be honest, but not too honest. [...] You're supposed to be sort of taking care of everybody and being responsible, ethically, in a way that I really don't believe is the same for male writers.
Gould pointed to Elizabeth Gilbert as the popular female writer par excellence, and said, "She's incredibly self-deprecating [...] She can't express an opinion without doubling back and saying like, 'Oh but maybe that's not how you feel and I don't wanna offend you and I'm so sorry to even have an opinion at all' and this is why her book sold millions and millions of copies." It may be true that Gilbert gets some of her popularity from her ingratiating style and her unwillingness to take a stand, but I think there's something else at work, at least in Eat, Pray, Love. That book shows a woman moving from misery to happiness, and not just happiness, but a Zen-like, self-actualized happiness complete with lots of yoga. This is a narrative readers like.
Contemporary adult readers, myself included, tend to expect a message of growth and healing from memoirs, perhaps especially if they're written by women. But Gould says, "I wish that I had a book sort of like this, that someone sort of gave to me when I first moved into my terrible apartment" in New York. At the same time, when I asked if there was any specific advice she wished she'd been given at the time, she answered, "I don't know if I would have been able to take it." What's satisfying to someone already on the other side of extreme youth, someone whose "free-floating ambition" has given way to reality or been satisfied (or both), may not be the same as what speaks to those still in the hungry years Gould chronicles. For them, for teenagers and early twentysomethings seeking what Gould calls "permission" to pursue their dreams, a narrative arc may matter less than the simple testimony of someone who's been there, offered without guilt and without apology.