Written by Mary-Louise Parker
Audiobook read by Mary-Louise Parker
Published by Scribner on November 10th 2015
Genres: Biography & Autobiography, Entertainment & Performing Arts, Personal Memoirs
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A wonderfully unconventional literary debut from the award-winning actress Mary-Louise Parker.
An extraordinary literary work, Dear Mr. You renders the singular arc of a woman’s life through letters Mary-Louise Parker composes to the men, real and hypothetical, who have informed the person she is today. Beginning with the grandfather she never knew, the letters range from a missive to the beloved priest from her childhood to remembrances of former lovers to an homage to a firefighter she encountered to a heartfelt communication with the uncle of the infant daughter she adopted. Readers will be amazed by the depth and style of these letters, which reveal the complexity and power to be found in relationships both loving and fraught.
If you’ve ever been unclear on the distinctions between memoir and autobiography, Mary-Louise Parker’s Dear Mr. You offers a pretty good illustration of them. Parker has been a well-regarded actress in film, television, and theater for over 25 years, but while some of her writing makes reference to work, she rarely describes projects she’s worked on or when they were made. Timelines are sketchy and often left to be inferred. She’s more likely to name places than people, and equally likely to be unspecific about both. Structured as a collection of letters directed to men who have affected her life in one way or another, Parker’s book is a reflection on one woman’s lived experience that is strikingly sparing with identifiable personal details; the latter quality is what makes it apparent that this is not autobiography.
That said, an interview with the L.A. Times suggests that Parker didn’t really mean to write a memoir, either:
“(Parker) never intended to write a memoir. In fact, she’s a little freaked that Dear Mr. You, an intimate and imaginative book of letters addressed to men, is being labeled as one.
“‘I feel bad when people say memoir, because who writes a memoir that is only about how they were affected by one gender? The pieces are about me but also … not,’ she says…Still, if you look closely at these letters, you’ll find a sidelong portrait of Parker, a mosaic of autobiographical shards.”
The opening letter in Dear Mr. You is written to the grandfather who died before Parker was born, and the last is for her father, reflecting on her quest to procure oysters for his last meal. She writes to, and about, teachers and friends and ex-boyfriends. She writes to a doctor, a firefighter, and an accountant. She writes to men she’s known deeply, and to men she’s known mostly in her imagination. She writes to the biological uncle of her adopted Ethiopian daughter, and in “Dear Future Man Who Loves My Daughter,” she writes to a man she probably won’t meet for years (her daughter isn’t even a teenager yet). She writes a letter of apology to a cab driver she encountered on an especially bad day. And these letters are literature–creative, vivid, and strongly voiced. While the structure of Dear Mr. You may seem like a gimmick, Parker’s writing is the real thing.
There were times I found it a bit disorienting to realize that Parker was revealing so much of herself while divulging so little in the way of biographical fact. (Try her IMDb page for that.) It created an unsettling intimacy—rather like having a deep discussion with someone about your ugly breakup stories while you’re both waiting in an airport and then realizing later that you never even exchanged names–which was enhanced by listening to her narrate the audiobook herself. Parker has long been known for her distinctive speaking voice, and it’s the perfect vehicle for her equally distinctive writing voice. Dear Mr. You was fascinating, unsettling, unexpected…and a highlight of my year in audiobooks so far.
DEAR MR. YOU by Mary-Louise Parker: From the Letter to “Blue”
“Did you sew it? I’m just trying to imagine where you got it. There was no such thing as Amazon yet and I’d never seen one, except on Tarzan.
“Your loincloth. Did you use fabric from an old couch? You didn’t have a couch. Maybe you liberated a square of fabric from your tepee or stitched together some burlap bags that once held hydroponic fertilizer.
“You wore that cloth on your loins every day so maybe there was even a spare? You were a fruitarian, eating nothing but fruit and nuts (though apparently beer was also a fruit?); a van illegally parked on the beach (not beside it, on it) was your home; and you needed no shirt, shoes, nothing. You and your friend Gary drove to the border at dawn to get avocados and figs for the co‑op where I worked also and then you went to the beach if you had no one to rolf. You were a rolfer, too, massaging those lucky people while wearing nothing or your loincloth. Okay, maybe a piece of jewelry was also on your body. A conch-shell necklace, but that was it.
“You and Gary both had gorgeous, ocean-soaked hair that was longer than mine. Gary had a mane of chestnut that might have made him rich if he’d opened a Seven Stations of the Cross theme park, but your hair was its own Disneyland. It glowed in the dark from saltwater and sun. That hair gave you the vibe of being both switched on and overcooked at the same time. You were the only men I’ve ever seen who could wear your hair in a bun with a flower and not seem sissy. You had soul patches and tans, period. Diving in the surf might happen five times a day, and how could you lie down at the tide and feel sand rushing everywhere if you were wearing clothes? When you took me to that nude beach up the coast, taking off your loincloth seemed brazen. A dog could walk away with your entire wardrobe in its mouth. Ripping it off was a breeze though, and you threw yourself in the water leaving me in awe of how little there was between you and the world. It took hardly anything to be not just happy, but filled with a kind of alien joy.
“You took anyone’s idea of modern life and set it on fire decades before anyone dreamed up Burning Man.”