I’m sitting here with my first cup of coffee of the morning and mulling over a book I finished last night, Gracefully Gone, by Alicia Coppola. Honestly, I’ve been mulling over this book and writing this post since I first started reading it last week.
Normally, I don’t write reviews—I might leave one on Amazon, as I did for Gracefully Gone, because I know those ratings and reviews can definitely help, but in terms of writing in-depth reviews on books, it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing. Maybe it’s because I know how much effort and sweat and tears and heart go into the creation of a book for me to turn what’s often a very critical eye on it. Call me a softy, but I can’t do it.
But Gracefully Gone has proven to be an exception almost from the get-go. Not simply because it’s prompting me to write about it, but because I even read it in the first place. You see, memoirs generally aren’t my cuppa—odd, since I actually love biographies, but I am a contrary creature. (Go on, look surprised.) But Gracefully Gone isn’t simply just another memoir either—it’s equal parts memoir, journal, and epistolary account. It chronicles the journey of Matthew Coppola, Sr. and his daughter, the young girl/woman who would grow up to become actress Alicia Coppola, as they navigated his cancer diagnosis, treatment, and eventually, the last months of his life.
It was a tremendous read—and yet, I still can’t review it, not in any traditional sense. It would… cheapen the experience, if that makes any sense. So I beg your tolerance as I record my reactions in the manner in which I heard them in my head as I read, which was… a chatty, conversational letter. Kind of apropos, no?
All right, then, here we go.
Well, fellow writer, I finished reading Gracefully Gone last night. And as it has from the first moment I started reading, it has stayed with me. For various reasons—the style (since you are a wonderfully evocative writer), the story, the events, but most of all, because of a line you used more than once and that resonated: “There but for the grace of God…”
I know in this increasingly transparent society in which we live—governed as it is by the media, social and otherwise—it’s easy to feel as if we know someone, even if an actual physical meeting has never taken place. I think, too, that feeling must be even more pervasive when you’re in an industry that in any way puts you in the public eye. I know I’ve experienced it as a writer whom like, six people know, so I can only imagine what it must be like for someone like you, who works in a more visual/communications-oriented media.
It’s a little weird, isn’t it?
Personally, I know I’ve enjoyed watching you as an actor for many years, from the standpoint of “Oh, it’s that girl… I like her work,” and when I ran across your account on Twitter, I decided you looked like a cool chick to follow and indeed, you were. I’ve enjoyed “talking” with you and exchanging tweets about wine and kids and, well… laundry. *spits three times and tosses holy water* But never would I have presumed to think I “know” you.
But then you mentioned Gracefully Gone and my interest was piqued. Okay, true confession: I can be a horrid snob about writing and people who blithely say they write or are writing a book. I don’t know—I think it has something to do with the fact that out of all of the creative pursuits, writing is the one most easily dismissed. Music, acting, painting—most people acknowledge that all of those require inherent talent and even training—but there’s just something about writing… I think it’s because we all know how to write in some way, shape, or form. After all, we’re all taught how to write in school, right? The dreaded five-paragraph essay and later on, term papers, and depending how far we get in our educations, theses and dissertations. *spits three times again* So there’s this misconception that writing is “easy” or requires little effort and even less talent.
I already know you know that for the utter bullshit it is—besides, that’s a soapbox for another day. I only mention it… well, hell, I’m not quite sure why. Maybe so you know a little more about where I’m coming from. Hi, I’m Barb, I’m a writer and I respect others who work their asses off on the craft as well and who have the balls to put themselves out there.
Moving along then.
I got my copy of the book a few days after its release and began reading it. And got to the first instance of “There but for the grace of God…” and that’s about when I found myself thinking, “Yeah… I know her. I know her very well,” because in many ways, you and I, again, I won’t presume to say we’re the same, per se, but let’s just say we’ve led very similar lives.
In a nutshell, we’re the same age, both born in NYC (although I was raised in Miami), both married, both mothers, both engaged in careers that can suck your soul out if you let it, and both essentially had our childhoods come to screeching halts at approximately the same age. Mine was due to divorce rather than illness, but in may ways, the results paralleled each other with the exception of your father was still there and still cared for you whereas I went from Daddy’s Little Girl to a hated obligation in what seemed like a heartbeat. But I, too, had a mother who was emotionally needy and whose personal dramas took precedence (although the missile tossed at my head wasn’t a hairbrush—it was a Dr. Scholl’s sandal. Remember those wooden fuckers? Good thing her aim sucked.)
I, too, had to become an adult far too young, taking on responsibilities no twelve year-old should have to shoulder; I, too, dealt with the weight of familial obligation and resented the hell out of it; I, too, wasn’t particularly liked in junior high or high school and was an easy target; I, too, found outlets in which I could find escape from the Beautiful People who seemed to live only to make my life hell and because of the nature of the escapes I found, considered me an even larger target. (Love the term “sleeper cell,” btw—so accurate.) The primary difference between our experiences, other than their source, was that for better or worse, you attracted attention from boys/men whereas I was both painfully homely and painfully shy (or as my friends love to say, even to this day, “Barb, you carry about you this palpable air of ‘come too close and I’ll cut you.'”).
But ultimately, it would appear the pervasive sense of loneliness and rootlessness was similar for both of us.
By the time I got near the end of Gracefully Gone my neck was sore from nodding my head like a bobblehead doll. So much, Alicia… so much not simply paralleled, but even crossed paths with my own life—even at the very end when you were relating the story of being at a birthday party for one of your daughters’ classmates and feeling a bit lost and bewildered when it came to commiserating about teenaged foibles for which you had no frame of reference. I still live in fear that people are laughing at me and I get really fucking tired of feeling like the Universe is piling on me because I’m somehow “strong enough” to take it. Oh, and yeah, I marvel at my kids and know that I definitely do not parent in the way in which I was parented. (My favorite threat: “You’re about to make me say something that will make me sound like Grandma and you know I hate that!”)
End result—when I say, as I did when I tweeted you, that you touched me, it wasn’t simply written as some bullshit line to make an impression. I don’t tend to say things I don’t mean—life’s too fucking short (another thing in which it would appear we’re similar—our propensity for colorful language)—so when I say you’re a hell of a writer, when I say you touched me, please, rest assured, I mean it.
Reading your words was in so many ways like reading my own. When I shed a tear as I read, I wasn’t just crying for the girl you’d been—the girl who went through so much and lost so much—but I was finally able to cry for the girl I’d been. The girl I never got to be.
And yeah, I look at who I am now, a little dented, a little tarnished (or as I like to think of it on the good days, with a lovely patina), and know I wouldn’t change things either.
For someone to make me feel all of that? Hell, for someone to get me to acknowledge it, out loud, where the possibility exists someone might point and mock?
Yeah, you’re a hell of a writer.
I hope one day we get the opportunity to finally cross paths, face-to-face, and oh, the stories we’ll share over a nice glass (okay, bottle) of wine.
And if not, well then, that’s okay, too. I’ll still tweet you about how much I hate laundry.
Rock on, fellow writer.
P.S. Just as an addendum—Saturday nights are Family TV Night in my house—we watch through various television series with our kids, introducing them to old favorites or discovering new shows. As it happens, Miracles has been one of our latest series—the husband and I loved it when it first aired, but of course, it got truncated by the idiocy that is network television programming. Anyhow, we’ve been on the back end of the run, finally watching the episodes that never actually aired. This past Saturday (after I’d begun reading Gracefully Gone) we queued up the penultimate episode and imagine my surprise when a familiar face popped up onscreen.
*cue Twilight Zone music*
Had no clue you’d even guested on the show. Go figure.