September 2009

Barbara J. King

features

Halfway to Each Other

As I read her memoir Halfway to Each Other, Susan Pohlman sat alongside me. When my eyes quickened their left-to-right pace because a chapter in the story of her family's year in Italy gripped my interest, she noted it. When a burst of air escaped my lips in a sub-vocal snit of frustration at some small bit of flawed tale-telling, she saw that too.

Okay, by any realistic measure, I was alone in a room reading Pohlman's book. But I sure didn't feel alone. This unexpected sense of reading with the author was unusual and a little unnerving. Does this happen to other reviewers? What's a reviewer to do, when she feels oddly connected with a writer, a complete stranger? So much so that she pictures the writer, her husband Tim, and her children, Katie and Matt crowded around a computer screen seeking critical responses to the book -- Pohlman's first -- and hopes they are not disappointed? (Although my own essays are columns rather than reviews, the idea is the same.)

Sure, I share some things with Pohlman. Like her, I love Italy. Like her, I'm a mother of a teenage daughter. Unlike her, I have never felt the pull towards divorce, but I do know the geologic landscape of a long-time marriage with its summits, valleys, and slumbering volcanoes. Also unlike her, I don't get all Christian about the role of God in people's lives, but I'm intrigued by all expressions of faith (or its absence).

I don't think these flat demographics, these similarities and differences, explain the book's pull for me, though. It's something more: Pohlman is groping towards something more subtle than her publicists are able (or willing) to define.

Look at the jacket copy: "Here is a book to be savored as you dream of unplugging the telephone, television, and computer, and actually spend time with your family. Here is a story to be emulated and simply enjoyed." Ugh. Visions of "ladies" magazine family confessionals danced in my head. Was this a True Life Tale of How to Save Our Children from the Very Bad Culture in this country? Do we need Guideposts (the book's publisher) telling us how to strengthen the nuclear family? Do we need to emulate the Pohlmans in a Revolutionary Road- like rush to Europe (remember Frank and April Wheeler's yearning to live in Paris to escape the "hopeless emptiness" of suburban Connecticut?)

But look, this isn't really what Pohlman is about, or at least, not all of what she's about. In a voice genuine and likable, she writes about a year that really rocked her world, a year during which she turned a hard gaze on herself -- on her choices, her behaviors and her words -- in a way that sounds easy to do but isn't. And she gnaws right into the core of my ambivalence.

See, I'm split down the middle, right down the middle of my corpus callosum, on this whole Bad Culture thing. I've just ripped it, and I sure don't want anyone telling me what a family is, or how to raise my child, or blathering that the U.S. is going to hell in a hand basket. On the other hand, I feel something -- something, something -- lapping at my daughter, at her friends. I don't mean the bad consumerist media, and I don't mean drugs. I mean something more in the way of the undertow than the wave. It's a genre of passivity that says Entertain me instead of I create my own fun. It says I want to be moved but can't always manage I go out into the natural world/the urban world/the suburban world and I am moved. And see, I don't think it's because of the telephone, the television, the computer, the iPod, the texting. Those distractions don't help, but they aren't the root cause of the passivity. I don't know what causes it, to be honest, but if other people feel its breath, shouldn't we collectively come to grips?

And this, in her own way, Pohlman does. She reacts to a rumbling force within herself that tells her to try something new, take her family and just go: "Something was pressing me beyond logic. The presence was palpable and it was like nothing I had ever felt before. No matter what words raced through my mind to argue against this preposterous idea, the momentum toward it increased. It was like my limbs and mouth were not connected to my brain anymore."

And so they went. Bickering parents and nervous kids, they sold their house and loaned out their dog, and they moved to a small town near Genoa. The required genre elements do show up -- perplexing Italian bus strikes, warm if inscrutable-at-first neighbors, mishaps with the famous and ensnaring red-tape bureaucracy, and naturally, tables bursting with fresh and delicious local food. Yet this isn't Under the Tuscan Sun and Pohlman explicitly captures why it isn't: "Frances and Ed never had so much as a tiff through all of [their] goings on? Of course a book was going to sound romantic when you left out all of the little irritations that make us real, make us human."

Susan, Tim, Katie, and Matt are real. The adults are alternately cruel and kind to each other, the kids make the mistakes of good kids growing up. They flower, Katie especially. She attends a dinner for two students at the American School who share a birthday. Katie tells the story of singing 'Happy Birthday': "We settled on Italian first, then we broke out in English. Then, because one of the girls whose birthday it was -- Malin -- was Swedish, her brother - Fredrik -- stood up and sang to her in their native language. Then, Stav stood up and sang it in Hebrew. Followed by Angelo in Korean and Rami in Lebanese… [the list continues]. It showed me how amazing these people are and how blessed I am to be here."

Not always are they so world-embracing, however, and this led to my air-puffs of exasperation. The Pohlmans leave Italy with such little linguistic skill that Pohlman herself remarks that "by this point it was a disgrace that we didn't know more Italian than we did."

Late in the year, young Matt giggles at the sight of a topless woman at the beach. This is unsurprising in a young boy, but why do the Pohlman parents and two grown-up friends also fall apart? "We four adults could handle this situation no better than a preteenage boy. None of us could concentrate," Pohlman writes, then describes their silly remarks and uncontainable laughter in the presence of "the largest natural breasts this side of Vesuvius."

And why paint God as a (weak) stand-up comic? As Pohlman rides the elevator toward her first glimpse of the Italian apartment that might become the family's new home, she imagines a conversation with God. God notes, "I am laying before you a chance of al lifetime." When Susan says she's afraid, God responds, "Of what? As it stands, you've got nothing more than a lot of brokenness and a few bucks in the bank, which, by the way, is not the currency We use up here."

So all is not perfect, and spirit of Susan in the room with me or not, that has to be told. Yet the narrative gains quiet power as the Pohlmans shed their reserve, venture out into different parts of Italy and then of wider Europe, and discover a new vitality in opening up to the world around them, and to each other.

In Italy the Pohlmans found "a sense of delight about life." It is this, more than anything, I wish for my family. As exquisite as Italy is, I want us to find that delight right here at home. And, on a good day, we do. Did their Italian year make a sustainable difference for the Pohlmans, now living once again in California? For that, we readers will need a sequel. Will it be All the Way Back Home and Still Together or All the Way Back Home and More Estranged than Ever? Pohlman isn't at my side to tell me, but I'm hoping she's living a happy ending. She's in my head, after all.

 

Barbara J. King anticipates time in Lucca during her next research-leave year. Contact her at bjking09@gmail.com