Approaching Neverland: A Memoir of Epic Tragedy and Happily Ever After
I think a lot of writers, regardless of genre, dislike it when people ask, “So, what’s your book about?” I think they dislike it because oftentimes the inquirer (whether a bar buddy, an aunt, or literary agent) cannot take the time to sit down and feel the emotional pulse of the work. What they really want is for the writer to give them the SparkNotes version, the blurb, or the pitch. Then after the writer has sterilized, politicized, and dissected his or her work into socially relevant terms, or sensationalized the hell out of its plot points, the inquirer decides whether or not it’s worth their time.
Good memoirs, such as Peggy Kennedy’s Approaching Neverland, are usually ones that divulge personal issues discussable in broader cultural contexts. I wouldn’t say this book is about the stigmatization or (mis)treatment of mental illness over the post-war decades, or even about the writer's coping with her mother’s mental illness. I wouldn’t say it is about how she and her family handled taboo issues, including infidelity, abortion, discovering sexual identities, AIDS, or any number of other juicy topics that recur throughout. Kennedy writes with such sincerity, and pulls the reader so close to her characters, that to try to compartmentalize and brand them with labels seems a disservice. By the end of the book, Kennedy has made the reader feel like one of the family, so I want to avoid even the politically correct pigeonholing of her beloved ones.
Of course, the English language is limited. Time is money and, as feminist activist (there’s that pesky, inevitable labeling) Carol Hanisch said, “the personal is political.” So what is the book about? To use Kennedy’s words, “Death and life and sorrow and joy circling round and round in an eternal dance of being.”
Okay, instead of belaboring what the book is or isn’t really “about,” I will say that Approaching Neverland is worth reading, re-reading, and sharing with others because it is beautifully human. The writing is earnest and palpable. The family’s strengths, vulnerabilities, tragedies, and joys will have the reader crying at the bottom of one page, smiling by the top of the next, then crying and smiling by the bottom again. Basically it will make you one hot mess, so if reading in public, keep a tissue handy.
The bond among Kennedy’s family is solid, and so is the one she creates between the reader and her story. Reading Approaching Neverland is an emotional excavation, as well as an important reminder that people are worth much more than their labels and some books are worth much more than their blurbs.