Rachel Shukert's new memoir Everything Is Going To Be Great does something unfortunately rare in women's writing: celebrating mistakes.
Everything tracks Shukert's often disastrous early-20s sojourn in Amsterdam, with detours into her also generally disastrous early adulthood in the States. She cops early on to her clumsiness, both literal — she once "smashed my face into the cement floor of a Schlotzsky's deli in Omaha" — and figurative — in the book, she repeatedly gets drunk, says the wrong things, and sleeps with the wrong guys. A representative encounter:
"You left your driver's license at his house," Daphne continued. "He found it on the floor of his bedroom. He said it must've fallen out of your purse when you were looking for a condom."
"We used a condom? I said. "That's good news."
"Apparently, it happened on your birthday," Daphne continued. "He knew when he saw your driver's license. He thought it was kind of weird you didn't say anything."
I felt queasy. "The guy I slept with had an accent. I swear to God he had a European accent."
Daphne snorted. "He does have an accent. From Dallas."
"I can't believe this," I said. "I'm sure I asked him if he was European. This is terrible."
"What are you upset about?" Daphne pressed. "Because you didn't recognize him, or because he isn't European?"
Shukert's accounts of her sexual peccadilloes (she also takes up with a much older, anti-Semitic Austrian and a scary Italian casanova) may fall into the category of writing Emily Gould described as "Oh goofy me, taking pratfalls," but the way she presents them is funny and, moreover, kind of reassuring. Yes, if I were Shukert's mother (who makes frequent and occasionally heartwarming appearances in the pages of Everything), I would probably warn her that some of her escapades put her in harm's way. But I'm not her mom, and as a woman of Shukert's generation, I'm kind of relieved to read a book that's basically the opposite of a cautionary tale.
The message of Everything isn't exactly, "I fucked up all over the place and was totally fine." Shukert journeys to Amsterdam with no money and no job, takes up with a man with a live-in girlfriend, and returns to New York with no money and no job — all resulting in a fair amount of misery. And while she does eventually get a real job in Amsterdam — and meet her future husband — she doesn't give short shrift to the pain she experienced along the way. Rather, what Everything affirms is that screwing up from time to time — or even a lot — doesn't make you a terrible person.
Near the end of the book, when Shukert is grieving over her breakup with her boyfriend who already had a girlfriend, she tells her friend, "maybe I don't deserve better. Maybe this is exactly what I deserve." The friend counters that she's not a bad person — "you're just messy." And indeed, lots and lots of women lead messy lives — but we're still not supposed to. In a piece called "Screwing Up" at The Good Men Project, Tom Matlack asked men to share their biggest mistakes. They range from the silly — "Drinking a third martini. Then talking." — to the serious — "Having a child before I was married or ready to have kids." But regardless of the severity of their mistakes, many of the men think of them as learning experiences. Too often, women are expected to learn without screwing up, to accept restrictions put in place for our own good (don't hook up with the wrong guys, don't travel alone, be sweet and well-behaved) rather than finding our own way. And while the latter may be more dangerous, it's also more exciting — and perhaps more likely to lead to a big and satisfying life. Women may not need to be told that everything is going to be great — Shukert's title is largely tongue-in-cheek anyway. But we may need to hear that even if we fuck up from time to time, we can still be great people.
Everything Is Going To Be Great: An Underfunded And Overexposed European Grand Tour
Screwing Up [The Good Men Project]