Review: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen
Rhoda Janzen was 43 and had been married for 15 years when, after recovering from a serious illness -- during which her usually grouchy husband Nick was suddenly uncharacteristically supportive -- she discovered that Nick was leaving her "for a guy named Bob he met on gay.com".
Two weeks later a car crash left her with a crushed clavicle and leg injuries. Broken in every sense, she headed back to the place of her upbringing, the Californian Mennonite community where her parents still live. Then the fun really begins.
In her new home, Janzen finds herself transported back to her childhood.
It's sometimes joyful, sometimes horrific. She's back in the kitchen cooking borsch with her flatulent mother, enduring long car journeys in the back seat of her parents' car as they visit relatives, shouting at the deaf old ladies to whom her mother regularly pays jam-bestowing visits.
Meanwhile, she is fighting a court battle with Nick over shared mortgage payments on their house -- which won't sell. And she is re-examining her entire life. Why did she spend 15 years with a man who told her repeatedly that he hated her? Is it her Mennonite background that made her so passive? And should she now consider her mother's urgent suggestion --that she marry her first cousin? After all, he does have his own tractor.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress was a cult hit in the US, where it spent 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Earning comparisons with David Sedaris and Justin Halpern (author of the hilariously brilliant Shit My Dad Says), this one book has transformed its author from an obscure academic into one of America's foremost humorists. The combination of her unfortunate circumstances and her bizarre background is the key, of course.
She mines both for intense comic effect -- but also with self-deprecation, fondness and insight.
She almost makes you wish you'd been brought up Mennonite. They are a devout but smiley Christian sect that the Amish broke away from in the 17th Century. This is in itself amusing: "To think that the Amish had a problem with the big bad carousing Mennonite lifestyle!"
Janzen's father is a Mennonite theologian and Janzen grew up in a traditional household. Most things were banned: "Drinking, dancing, smoking, sex outside of marriage, sex inside of marriage, gambling, playing cards, foul language (ie, the word "fool"), Ouija boards, slumber parties, cafeteria lunches, divorce, Prada, atheist husbands who, after 15 years of marriage, leave you for a guy named Bob."
Janzen left the community in her late teens when she decided to go into academia. A University of California poet laureate in the mid-Nineties, she is now an English lecturer at a college in Michigan. At various points in the narrative she is slightly vague about exactly what was going on between her and her husband, but basically she claims she supported him financially for most of the marriage, including a period when she says he went on a spending spree that encompasses the purchase of a pair of $385 Yohji Yamamoto gloves.
"That was just the beginning. Soon I longed for the days when he had merely been spending $385 on a pair of gloves."
Back home with her parents and on sabbatical from her career, Janzen starts to date again -- no easy matter in a part of the world where most people are Mennonites (and by definition probably related to you). In one encounter she exchanges glances with a man in the supermarket who runs up to her afterwards in the car park to give her a note, saying: "If you're a single woman of God, I surely wish you'd email me. That's my email address."
His name is Mitch. He is good-looking so, desperate, she decides to take a chance. When they meet for coffee he turns up wearing a leather necklace studded with a nail, the sort of thing a heavy metal fan would wear. They then bump into some old friends of Janzen's who ask, pointing to Mitch's neck: "What's the story on your nail?" "My nail is the nail in the hands of Jesus. He was crucified for our sins," Mitch replies, adding helpfully: "It's not the actual nail, though. This is a replica."
The heroine of the book, though, is Janzen's mother, a plain-talking, wise-cracking, salt-of-the-earth woman who regularly bursts into song (German hymns) and always has a batch of kartoffelsalat on the go. If anything, Janzen's parents are a great advert for strait-laced Christianity: they are happy, no-nonsense and full of integrity. And they must have an amazing sense of humour if she has published this book and they are still speaking to her.
Janzen's story has also been compared to Elizabeth Gilbert's post-divorce reinvention journey Eat, Pray, Love, and there are obvious parallels. Except Janzen's story is both more self-aware and less contrived -- and funny as hell.
Once in a while a book comes along that makes you laugh so much you think you'll choke. This is that book. My only criticism is that I wanted more, especially about Bob. But I guess that's his story.