Speaking with Strangers

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

This continuation of Mary Cantwell’s memoirs, the third volume, suffers by comparison with the first two. It has none of the sweet, memory-provoking nostalgia of AMERICAN GIRL: SCENES FROM A SMALL-TOWN CHILDHOOD (1992) and little of the passionate intensity or humor of MANHATTAN, WHEN I WAS YOUNG (1995). Those books are beautifully centered around places, events, themes. And the tone of each, while markedly different, is faithfully maintained through the memoirist’s voice. Unhappily, SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS possesses none of these virtues.

Cantwell’s story, here, begins with her returning from an assignment in Europe. She feels guilty about being away from her two young daughters, yet delighted to have been away, in a foreign land among strangers, where her forced anonymity saves her, as it were, from the ongoing struggle to accept who she is. The memoir then alternates between experiences abroad in such places as Turkey, Siberia, and Australia, and periods in New York with their concentration on her children, her job, and her love affair with a famous, but married, poet. The problem is that none of these things—travels, family, career, love life—seem to amount to much. The reader keeps hoping for a climax of some kind, but it never comes. It is Cantwell’s great gift as a memoirist never to sensationalize, but in this volume, at least, the blandness becomes deadening.

And the voice goes awry. This is a story of a woman torn by guilt, conflicted about her perceived failures as a wife and mother, bereft by her father’s death, riven by a sense of herself as a sinner and a destroyer. But the voice is strangely serene, untouched by all this, even as she records it. Perhaps because SPEAKING WITH STRANGERS is told by a woman who is a success, the drama of the journey is missing, and some kind of drama there must be.