Review by H. L. Hix
In her very brief “Foreword” to You Are All a Part of Me, Lisa del Rosso declares that the essays in the book “are about people. My people.” Don’t believe it.
Not that the essays are not portraits. They are: of del Rosso’s mother, her father, a beloved grandfather, her oldest and most intimate friends, her ex-husband, her mother-in-law, her students, and so on. The essays are portraits, but not only or even primarily portraits. When del Rosso says these essays are about people, she means they are about the relationships between people. Consequently, the book is not merely the sum of its parts (not an assortment like a collection of stamps, not a sampler like a box of chocolates), but a whole. It is an exploration of what a life well lived might look like: who to look to for help envisioning a well-lived life and who to look to for help in fulfilling the vision. The book is not a photo album but a journey narrative, the story of del Rosso’s pursuit of happiness.
The reader begins to intuit this deeper sense of the book’s being “about people” a few sentences later in the “Foreword” when del Rosso protests that “People matter.” She follows that full stop with another two-word sentence: “To me.” The reader knows to read those asseverations as a shorthand, to translate them into something like “Human relationships matter. I am who I love.” Relationships R Us. Del Rosso herself confirms the point, introducing the book’s first section, “Blood,” with the alert that “The more you read, the more inter-related the people in these essays are. There are family members connected to me by blood and those who are not blood that I consider family. Some of my people are living and some are dead. Death ends the life, not the relationship. The relationship continues.”
The sense of progression rather than (mere) collection is strengthened by periodic variations in the form of the pieces. Most are “normal” personal essays, but the “stages on life’s way” in the book are marked by changes in approach that are also changes in voice. These can take place at moments within essays, as when del Rosso ends “Indelible,” a testament to a tattooed biker second cousin, Dave, with one paragraph of direct address, making Dave at the end not a “he” but the “you” of “I tucked a Nat Sherman cigar next to your tattooed arm” and “You had a motorcycle-drawn glass carriage transport you to the graveside.” More often than within essays, though, the modulations of voice occur as essays. For example, after an essay about a beloved older friend, Ruth, now dead, del Rosso offers as its complement a substantial group of “vignettes I wrote for her adored nephew, Evan, to keep him in the loop of our ‘adventures,’ as Ruth called them,” but which, del Rosso says, she never showed to Ruth herself. Later in the book, del Rosso reports on a day of substitute teaching at a charter school in Florida with her “notes from the day,” recounting what she learned from the students she was there to teach. Or again, the book’s very last piece is organized, just askew to conventional essay form, as a “Transcript of Group Therapy: 5.12.20.”
You Are All a Part of Me builds on a set of dramatic tensions. For example, the meditative character of the book — 250+ pages of intensive reflection on a lifetime of personal relationships — operates in contrast to the impulsive streak that del Rosso sees in herself, admitting on more than one occasion that “I have made all of the major decisions in my life, for better or worse, in under three seconds.” Or again, examples del Rosso wants to follow are matched against others she does not want to follow. She wants to follow the example of her grandfather, whose character comes through in moments such as this one:
I once asked him who was the best president he had lived under. He said, “FDR.” I was surprised, because I thought he would say JFK.
I said, “Why?”
He said, “Because he gave a shit about people.”
By contrast to that exemplary grandfather, “If my father ever made one single person happy, I don’t know about it.”
That such dramatic tensions don’t resolve makes del Rosso’s pursuit of happiness a story of coming to terms with the tensions, rather than a story of escaping from them. So, summarizing her ongoing, fraught relationship with “The Man From Kentucky” (or simply “Kentucky”), del Rosso protests, “If I could choose to go through my life without falling in love, I would. Placid waters are preferable to a constant rollercoaster ride. It would be easier if I did not love him. But I do.” Similarly, the result of the group therapy session recounted in the book’s last essay is not relief and comfort: to the contrary, “It feels like my chest has been cracked open.” Other writers share del Rosso’s sense that happiness is complex rather than simple, and its pursuit ongoing rather than once for all. I think, for example, of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, Lynne McFall’s Happiness, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness. Its being formidable, though, does not put off del Rosso from the pursuit of happiness. For me, the representative anecdote in the book occurs in an essay about Derek, described by del Rosso as her best friend and “my second decent male role model after my grandfather.” During a short stay with Derek and his family, after a party at their home, “Derek and I stayed up until 3 am or so, and had one of those long, intimate conversations about love, sex, loss, friends, writing, theatre, finances, goals, dreams, life.” Reflecting on that conversation, del Rosso asks, “What is the word to describe the feeling of never wanting to leave that fire pit, never wanting to leave him and his family and that oasis of a home they have made?” You Are All a Part of Me recounts the search — it is itself a search — for that word