“Control what you can control,” my dad has told me for years. He says it in response to my frustration with things I can’t control: an injustice, someone else’s behavior, bad weather… but it took years for me to truly appreciate the lesson. In fact, I may not have fully understood it until I decided to move to Da Nang, Vietnam, where daily life is often unexpected.
Ariel Levy’s beautifully written memoir The Rules Do Not Apply touches on all sorts of big themes—coming of age, sexuality and modern-day womanhood among them—but the highlight, for me, was control.
“Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism,” Levy writes, “a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us. Writers may be particularly susceptible to this outlook, because we are accustomed to the power of authorship.”
Levy is a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she frequently writes about gender and sexuality. This book, in fact, is more or less an expansion of an award-winning essay she wrote for the magazine. (Note for those who hate spoilers: Much of this essay is repeated verbatim in The Rules Do Not Apply.)“That trip was like all my life, distilled: a compulsion to thrust myself toward adventure,… Click To Tweet
The book begins with Levy’s upbringing and moves on to building her career as a writer, where she finds agency and purpose through her travels and what she makes of them when she puts pen to paper. She continues on, creating a life with a loving spouse and a beautiful home on Shelter Island, complete with a well-tended garden and plans to start a family. From this high point, things slowly begin to unravel until it all explodes one tragic night, when Levy is alone in her hotel room in Mongolia.Ariel Levy’s beautifully written memoir The Rules Do Not Apply touches on all sorts of big… Click To Tweet
The Rules Do Not Apply is worth the read for the writing alone. I particularly enjoyed the cultural references: Virginia Woolf, Lou Reed, Elena Ferrante, Cat Stevens, Simone de Beauvoir, The Prophet, The Moosewood Cookbook and Pippi Longstocking among them. Not only will they resonate with women who are drawn to art featuring strong women, they also provide context for Levy’s experiences.
Levy’s forthright style sparkles because of the purity and directness of her language. It is reminiscent of Cheryl Strayed, David Sedaris and even her fellow staffer at The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell. She’s intense yet graceful, using simple language and fleeting details to convey complex emotions and context. Much of her family dynamic, and what she learned about womanhood as a child, is conveyed in this excerpt:
“From my mother, I learned that you can make your family feel a wonderful sense of protected indulgence by cooking them something with jolly care. I also learned that you can launch a powerful campaign of resistance by mincing garlic like a martyr.”
Levy paints herself through the eyes of others at times, which requires both maturity and a writer’s detachment. She refers to this writerly outlook on life frequently throughout the book:
“To become a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own life,” she writes early on in the book. “Your questions were answered, your freedom was gone, your path would calcify in front of you.”
Levy looked at her life as a book that she was writing as she went, controlling the characters, setting and plot as much as possible. Until things happened that were outside of her control, including both the actions of others and the forces of nature: “Nothing really bad could happen to me in my movie, because I was the protagonist.”
Despite the book’s beauty, it is a bit unbalanced. It’s split into three parts. Part one is more than half of the book and is entirely exposition. In particular, some of the references to other work she’s done—such as a handful of profiles she was assigned at The New Yorker—feel tangential to the narrative. On the other hand, this is where Levy’s spirit of adventure shines, and where the armchair traveler can find some anecdotal satiation. She travels to South Africa to profile a track superstar, to Seattle to meet with a former lesbian separatist and to Mongolia to discover how the region’s newfound mining wealth will affect gender parity.
Levy even references her six months of backpacking through Asia when she was twenty-two. As she explains it, her “mood on those exotic days in Kathmandu and Da Nang alternated between euphoria and lonely terror.” We travelers can relate… and, as an American expat who’s been living in Da Nang for going on two years now, I enjoyed imagining what Levy’s experience of the city was like twenty years ago.
“American Express let you receive mail at their offices then, and the first thing I did whenever I got to a city after a long bus ride was rush to collect a small stack of envelopes and postcards. Then I would read my mail and cry in my tea.”
She attempts two weeks of silent meditation in southern Thailand. Reading and writing are also verboten. She only makes it three days.
“That trip was like all my life, distilled: a compulsion to thrust myself toward adventure, offset by a longing to crawl into the pouch of some benevolent kangaroo who would take me bounding, protected, through life,” Levy explains.
Furthermore, because of the additional context leading up to the book’s climax, what is gleaned from the book is different than what one takes away from the New Yorker essay. The essay describes a raw, pungent moment–losing a pregnancy to miscarriage, a fairly common part of womanhood that is uncommonly discussed, let alone made into art. It happened in a hotel bathroom in Mongolia, while she was 19 weeks pregnant and on assignment. She shares vivid details of the experience: the blood, her baby’s skin, the tampon a Mongolian EMT offers her, the photo she takes to prove to herself that her son existed. Her grief is unabated and on the surface. The book gives this grief more context—readers experience a life constructed deliberately, layer-by-layer and then dismantled as by a quick-striking tropical storm.Some of us learn how to “control what we can control” by travel, through small lessons such as… Click To Tweet
Levy starts out by writing the script for her life, starting with a successful career of her design, moving on to marrying on her terms and then to planning a family in a way that fits into her adventure-filled plot. Yet she finds that she isn’t in full control of her life after all. This epiphany comes not from motherhood, as she previously worried would be the case, but from her tragic experience with almost-motherhood. Levy’s bravery in allowing us, as readers, to experience this often privately heart-wrenching moment alongside her is to be admired.
Some of us learn how to “control what we can control” by travel, through small lessons such as the inevitability of delayed flights on up to natural disasters that don’t happen “back home.” Others learn this lesson through parenthood, through unexpected life changes, through grief. Levy seems to learn it on the page in front of us, in this memoir-as-a-life-in-progress, ending her book the same way she did her article:
“Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.”