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lip lit: margaret overton, good in a crisis

Ever since my young sister spent three months in hospital due to complications following brain-surgery, I’ve been fascinated with books about illness and grief, particularly when it comes to memoir.  It’s not that I’m a morbid person. It’s more that since I’m writing about the subject myself, I like to see how others approach it.  Most the time I find these memoirs too hard to handle because they get a little too emotive and clichéd for me. If I read one more book in which someone mentions a butterfly or a bird being their loved one’s spirit, or seeing a beautiful rainbow and realising everything happens for a reason, I may claw out my own eyes.

I prefer my memoirs to be gritty, bleakly funny, and completely honest. I love it when people embrace their selfishness and shallowness (like Dave Eggers in ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’) or when they are pragmatic and matter-of-fact (like Joan Didion in ‘A Year of Magical Thinking’ and Blue Nights’). To me, these hold more power. It’s so refreshing hearing that something tragic has happened, and that it wasn’t part of some divine plan, and that quite simply – it sucks.

So, it was with some trepidation that I picked up a copy of Margaret Overton’s Good in a Crisis. The back cover told me it was about what happened after Overton, who was freshly divorced and dating again, had an aneurysm during sex.  By the third paragraph on the second page, Overton had concerned me by saying she was the type of person who looked for ‘signs’. But later on the same page she won me over, when she described a patient (she was working as an anesthesiologist) as being ‘nice-looking if you ignored the blue tint to his skin’.

In this case, my second opinion was the one that held. Overton speaks with a refreshing candor, and never uses the pity card as a trump. Despite going through a horrendous divorce with  perhaps the most selfish man in the planet, she doesn’t belittle him. She recounts her ex-husband’s actions and relays his words, and lets us form our own judgments.

Good In a Crisis isn’t just about a difficult divorce, or knowing how to deal with a precarious illness.  It’s about everything else that happens throughout the time. It’s about how personal tragedy (unlike credit cards) doesn’t have a limit or payment plan. It explores how your own tragedy doesn’t mean those close to you are safe by approximation.

And does it pass my memoir test? Absolutely. Overton is refreshingly candid. She admits to her poor decisions and her, at times, selfish and self-pitying thoughts.  She isn’t on a mission to win us over; she wants to share her experience with us.  And most of that experience is something that we are mostly too scared to admit: life is ridiculously fragile and tenuous, and knows nothing of reason. But in all the moments that come? It’s our choice in how we react to them – it’s just that sometimes, we have to remember to let ourselves have the patience to get where we need to be.

Bloomsbury, $29.95

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