Book Talk: *Planting Dandelions*, by Kyran Pittman

Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From a Semi-Domesticated Life
Kyran Pittman (blog)
Riverhead (2011), Hardcover (ISBN 1594488002 / 9781594488009)
Nonfiction/memoir, 256 pages
Source: ARC from publisher (pub date April 2011)
Reason for reading: review, personal interest, Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge

Opening lines (from the Introduction)
*: “I jumped the white picket fence. Not in the way the story usually begins, with the hero breaking out, busting loose, setting off across the wild world in search of her authentic, enlightened self. That would be uncharacteristically normal of me. I broke in, not out.”

Book description: In the family of Jen Lancaster and Elizabeth Gilbert, Kyran Pittman is the laid-back middle sister: warm and witty and confiding, with an addictively smart and genuine voice-but married with three kids and living in the heartland. Relatable and real, she writes about family in a way that highlights all its humor, while at the same time honoring its depth.

A regular contributor to Good Housekeeping, Pittman is well loved because she is funny and honest and self-deprecating, because her own household is in chaos (“semi-domesticated”), and because she inspires readers in their own domestic lives. In these eighteen linked, chronological essays, Pittman covers the first twelve years of becoming a family, writing candidly and hilariously about things like learning to maintain a marriage over time; dealing with the challenges of sex after childbirth; saying good-bye to her younger self and embracing the still attractive, forty-year-old version; and trying to “recession-proof” her family (i.e., downsize to avoid foreclosure).

Comments: The increasingly popular “novel-in-stories” format seems to have a counterpart in nonfiction: the “linked-essays” memoir. Like all memoirs, these books tell a personal story, but the telling is episodic rather than along the straightforward narrative through-line found in both traditionally autobiographical and “experience-based” memoirs. I’ve read a few of these – Dani Shapiro’s reflective Devotion, Quinn Cummings’ born-from-a-blog Notes From the Underwire and, less recently, Ayelet Waldman’s controversial Bad Mother – and I’m gaining a real appreciation for the structure, considered apart from the content. But I appreciated Kyran Pittman’s just-released Planting Dandelions for both.

The seeds of Planting Dandelions (only a little bit of pun intended) are in the blog Kyran began keeping at Christmas 2005, Notes to Self. That blog led to a contributing-editor’s job with Good Housekeeping magazine as well as this book, and I’ve been reading it for two or three years now; it’s an excellent example of a blog that you keep returning to because of the writing. That writing carries over to the book. While Pittman is selective about the episodes she’s chosen to include in her memoir – as is completely her right – her voice is never less than honest and intimate as she shares them, and her words are thoughtful and well-chosen. I may be bringing my own filter to this, but the voice strikes me as one honed on a blog, in the best possible way.

There were a lot of observations here that really clicked with me. Kyran lives in Little Rock, Arkansas – just three hours from my old home in Memphis, Tennessee – and we’ve had the common experience of coming from Northeastern roots and growing to love the American South, with all its complications; the 11th essay in the book, “Southern Man,” talked about that adaptation with some references that felt familiar. She’s experienced infidelity and divorce, and both have influenced her eyes-wide-open approach to her second marriage, now well into its second decade. Her reflections on juggling work and family sound familiar, but I felt they were given additional dimension by her openly conflicted feelings about domesticity (hence the “semi-” in the subtitle).

Pittman is forthright about the challenges of marriage, parenting, and combining the two, and her storytelling is often moving and frequently amusing. However, I didn’t get a sense of things being exaggerated for comic effect; while not always overly serious, it’s clear that the author has given a lot of thought to the matters she’s writing about, and reading Planting Dandelions feels like a really good, deep conversation.

*Quotes are from an Advance Reader Copy of this book and may appear differently in the finished version.

Rating: 4/5
This book qualifies for the Memorable Memoirs Reading Challenge and is eligible for nomination in the Biography/Memoir category of the 2011 Indie Lit Awards.
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