The Middle Place and How to Sleep Alone in a Twin-Sized Bed: Humor and Pathos Together

Remember when I met the woman from Wells Fargo bank on a plane going from Minneapolis to San Francisco?  Remember that she told me about Kelly Corrigan and a must-read memoir called The Middle Place?  Well, I finally read the book.  I have to agree with my seatmate–  Kelly Corrigan can write and she knows women’s hearts.  She also made me laugh.  Another writer, Theo Pauline Nestor, author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, also combines humor with pathos. If these two can conquer cancer (Corrigan) and divorce  (Nestor) with a sense of humor intact, they deserve a read, don’t you agree? They pull us into their happy-sad lives with two quintessentially American ways of overcoming adversity–through self-reliance and through community.

Nestor’s heritage comes straight from Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Her father’s mother believed the highest of all callings is one’s own personal happiness. Divorce was so frequent on both sides of her family that the family tree twists and turns. Her grandmothers and her mother are all independent, intellectual, career women with good business sense but very little stereotypical nurturing skill.  As a result, Nestor as an adolescent could not fall backward to be caught by her classmates in the drama class.  She could not trust.  And she hated to need other people.

The king-sized bed of the title moves in and out of the story as a place where trust is created, reshaped, and renamed. After her divorce, Nestor’s friend Anika comes to visit, sleeps in the bed temporarily. The young daughters find a spot in the middle. But only the author lies there night after night, searching for different positions, rest, comfort.

Nestor is able to ask her mother for help, but the thing she searches for is self-suffiency.  “It’s up to me now to hunt, to gather, and to keep shelter warm.” Nestor, in other words, searches for a nest.  But she sees herself as the only rock to cling to.

Readers who liked Eat, Pray, Love might enjoy this book. Nestor’s greatest writing strength comes from the whimsical “hippy chick” perspective that sees two things at once–the serious material world and a detached, funny story about that world.  For example, as she prepares for an  interview for a contract position at Microsoft, she learns that the current theme in recruitment is “balance,” which, instead of spurring serious strategy for how to win the position, creates this visual picture:  “balanced employees, tortoises that could keep plugging away for the long haul, still producing and delivering long after the flaccid bodies of exhausted hares have lined the sides of the road.”

I read How to Sleep Alone several weeks ago.  It went down easy–the characters were interesting, intelligent, zany.  But I was surprised by how little I remembered about the book. I cheered, like all readers will,  for the plucky woman who takes up her bed and walks.  However, nothing lingers in my heart and mind from this story.

The Middle Place, on the other hand, does remain with me. Partly because the author herself is so winsome and uses networking and social media so well. Here she is reading the essay “Transcending,” which is included in The Middle Place as an appendix.

No wonder other women love this book so much.  So much heart here.  Does it verge on too much?  A little too close to Hallmark or the Lifetime movie channel?  Sometimes, perhaps.  But Corrigan, who’s a young writer and will only get better at this, knows how to develop characters who exude both shadow and light.  The reason I remember her book better than Nestor’s is that the character of Greenie, her dad, looms like a giant over the whole book. Her mother Mary’s presence is quieter but still strong.  Behind the vivid, sensory-rich description lives another, invisible, character without a name.

At the end of the book Corrigan asks her young daughter Georgia, “What makes a home a home?” Georgia replies, “There’s not a word for that.” All good books, made up of thousands of words, try to reach the place beyond words.  Corrigan knows where that place is.  Her daughter knows it too.

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Shirley Showalter

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