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A review of The Death of Fred Astaire and other essays from a life outside the lines

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The Death of Fred Astaire and other essays from a life outside the lines
by Leslie Lawrence
State University of New York Press, 2016; 277 pages, $18.95

"This was 1984, just two years after the Sperm Bank of California became the first to provide services for lesbians, a year before Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS, five years before the appearance of Heather Has Two Mommiesthe first children’s book to depict a lesbian couple parenting." Thus Leslie Lawrence describes the climate in which she struggled to reconcile her desire to be a mother—"a yearning I could taste"—with her growing understanding that "when I was with women I felt more fully myself and more deeply loved." She recounts that struggle in "The Death of Fred Astaire," the first essay in her collection of the same title. She compellingly narrates the experience of falling in love with her partner Sandy, the decision to have a child together, and her fierce determination to build their family in the way that felt most true to her own spirit—despite the scarcity of role models.

The Death of Fred Astaire and other essays from a life outside the lines collects eighteen wide-ranging essays. Lawrence, whose writing has appeared in publications such as Prairie Schooner, Witness, and The Boston Globe Magazine, tackles topics as earthly as yard sales, picnics, and childhood dance lessons and as profound as motherhood, identity, and death. These essays vary greatly in length, subject, and tone, but Lawrence's determination to live authentically, expressed in the very first essay, unites these pieces. The quest for authenticity forms a thread running through essays about her experiences as a teacher, a student, a traveler, an artist, a mother, a daughter, a partner. No matter what she’s doing, Lawrence does it with a winning combination of candor and sincerity.

In "Becoming Jennie," the second essay in the collection, Lawrence describes the experience of sorting through her grandmother's belongings after her grandmother has died. She comes across a packing list with a reminder to pack "one good bra;" it comes as a surprise to her that her "formal and painstaking" grandmother owned bras that were less than good. That packing list turns out to be only the first of several finds. Over time, Lawrence writes, "I have discovered other artifacts and heard tidbits suggesting that my grandmother was not the woman I thought her to be—or certainly not only that."

This gradual growth of understanding—knowledge accumulated through tidbits—is an apt image to encounter at the beginning of this book. Lawrence's essays work in the same way. Her experiences infuse every essay, and as we read we gradually develop a picture of her life: her son Sam, her partner Sandy, her work as a teacher and writer, her experience of motherhood, Sandy’s eventual illness and death from cancer, the cabin in New Hampshire where the family spent their summers, the dogs they loved. These elements surface in various ways, sometimes as the main focus of an essay and sometimes in the background. They gain meaning with each recurrence, creating a collection that is greater than the sum of its parts. This layering allows Lawrence to achieve scenes whose power seems effortless. For example, she provides a vivid depiction of those summers in New Hampshire, on a meadow called "the mowing," adding details in one essay after another. By the time she writes, late in Sandy’s illness, "But now it is summer. We are on the mowing again," no explanation is needed. The reader instantly understands how significant it is to be together in the beloved place; the moment resonates.

Occasionally, Lawrence’s essays seem to stop just short of reaching truly satisfying conclusions. In "Andee’s Fiftieth and the Way We Live Now," for instance, she catalogs a group of friends at a birthday party, describing the ways that each of them have worked to build communities and families—mainly by breaking free of convention and seeking their own idiosyncratic living arrangements. She ends by observing, "We'll be laughing still, I suspect, when the children we do raise end up with lives more resembling their grandparents'." This feels a bit too easy, and makes this essay one of a handful in which the opportunity to dig deeper seems to have been missed.

The most ambitious essay in The Death of Fred Astaire is "Wonderlust: Excursions through an Aesthetic Education." This long piece, made up of many short sections, tracks Lawrence's lifelong engagement with beauty, art, and creativity. She describes ballet classes that she took as a girl in Queens, a painting course in Taos, a memorable experience with a public art project at The MacDowell Colony; she draws on the ideas of other thinkers and writers, such as Elaine Scarry's work on the relationship between beauty and justice, and Rudolf Laban’s system of movement analysis and dance notation. She juxtaposes deeply felt scenes of Sandy and Sam with meditations on the nature of creativity and beauty. Lawrence moves nimbly through this difficult terrain, mingling the abstract with the personal; introducing complex ideas in accessible ways; exploring "the luscious gift of self-oblivion" that art-making can provide, and wrestling with big questions (about the necessity of expression, the changing roles that art can occupy over the course of a life, the fraught relationship between beauty and death) without getting heavy-handed. In one section of the essay, Lawrence describes having an epiphany while attending a lecture about Wallace Stevens:

Suddenly it’s perfectly clear: like the singer in the poem who walks by the sea, all of us are the "artificers" of our world—"artificer" not in the sense of “falsifier” but in the sense that our minds are always arranging our perceptions, our imaginations are deepening and enchanting our experiences. Furthermore … we live to share the meanings we make.

Lawrence does just that in "Wonderlust," and the result is both a subtle and moving portrait of Lawrence as a seeker and an intricate exploration of that ineffable "something" that she seeks.

This intimate essay collection reveals Lawrence as an immensely likable guide through her own life. Her essays are animated by her honesty and her wonderfully appealing capacity for finding interest and value in everything around her. Under her eye, the yard sales are just as likely to provide meaning as are the bigger experiences in life.

Katherine D. Stutzman’s fiction has appeared in Bound Off, jmww, and Summerset Review, and her book reviews can be found in New Letters, Pleiades, and on the [PANK] Magazine Blog.  She currently lives, writes, and teaches in Philadelphia. 

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