Elevate Difference

Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses

Let the whole world put on a pair of rubber gloves and plunder and pillage. We have no secrets any longer. We have become public property.

Women who write about their lives face challenges that male writers do not. Not only are women charged with writing about their own lives, with creating selfhood on paper, they are somehow additionally responsible for upholding the idea of womanhood. In this way, they bear the responsibility for representing, and in a sense, for creating the lives of all women. (Considering the diversity of possible identities which women take on for themselves, this is at the very least, a difficult task.)

While we might ask whether a woman writer should even be obligated to tell a story other than her own, for women who read life writing, the question might as easily become: which parts of a woman’s life are hers and which belong, through the construction of womanhood, to all women? Which part of this woman’s life is mine?

In Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses, Claudia Sternbach navigates the terrain of personal memories and public ones. Through her nimble use of language, which is delightfully suffused with sarcasm, she connects with women of various ages and experiences. The emotions of the moments, if not the moments themselves, ring true to experience.

“But please,” she writes to her future husband, “You and your soon-to-be platonic friend, enjoy the pool. Enjoy the tennis courts. Bring her up here to the rose garden for a picnic.”

Sternbach also connects with women by wittily drawing on cultural references or events that are familiar to every reader: “…Ma won’t let me leave until my plate is cleaned. Because you know about those starving babies in China.”

While Sternbach never states that she is speaking to a specific idea of womanhood and, in fact, directly backs away from the idea that she speaks for anyone, the effect of this effort to form a connection with other women and their lives is that Reading Lips is less a story of one woman’s life, and much more a celebration of the experience of living a woman’s life. It is a celebration of an idea of womanhood in which “Teddy put his lips right up to mine and they stayed there … and right then I could see our whole long lives.”

Written by: Elizabeth Brasher, April 29th 2011
Tags: women, memoir