Deborah Levy opens her new memoir, The Cost of Living, by telling us one of those small stories whose size, like an ant or a virus, stands in inverse proportion to its power.
As Levy recalls, one night, she was sitting alone in a bar in the Caribbean. Near her, a muscled middle-aged guy whose silver hair was gathered into a manbun started chatting up a young woman. Levy comes to refer to him as "Big Silver."
Eventually, the young woman interrupted Big Silver's soliloquy with a story of her own about scuba diving in Mexico. The young woman said that after she had been underwater for a while, she surfaced into a terrible storm. All the time she was swimming, she was anxious she wouldn't make it back to the boat, which was manned by a companion who should've been looking out for her. Big Silver responded to this tale by saying to the young woman: "You talk a lot don't you?"
Levy, our erudite eavesdropper, keeps alluding to this story throughout her memoir. For her, it's as layered as that roiling sea. On a political level, the tale dramatizes what can happen when a woman claims the right to tell a story of her own. Also, Levy personally identifies with that young woman, frightened to be surfacing alone in a storm.
In Levy's case, the storm was the breakup of her long marriage. But that boat metaphor doesn't quite go in the direction you might expect. Listen to what Levy does with it:
When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable. My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.
The Cost of Living is Levy's account of being tossed about in midlife. It's her work, including this memoir itself, made, as Levy writes, from "the cost of living" that becomes her rescue raft.
Levy's style is fragmented, each anecdote as luminous, self-contained and hard as the pearls in the necklace she habitually wears around her throat. There's humor here and vulnerability; after all, in addition to her divorce, Levy has to weather those other common melancholy midlife markers — the death of her mother and the departure of one of her two daughters for college.
But above all, The Cost of Living is a smart, slim meditation on womanhood informed by Levy's wide reading. Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf — they're just some of the Wise Ones Levy looks to for pointers about how a woman can be, once she has stepped out of her normative role or, as Levy puts it, once she is no longer "married to society."
Here are a couple of Levy's pearl-like anecdotes: After the family home is sold, Levy and her daughters move to a vast old apartment house, whose mazelike corridors might have been transplanted straight out of Mr. Rochester's house in Jane Eyre.
Levy herself, of course, is the resident madwoman in this attic. She describes her do-it-yourself effort to fix some blocked bathroom pipes one morning. Levy is dressed for the job in a black silk nightgown, a thick postman's jacket and fake fur boots.
Even as she is busy excavating the muck of the pipes, Levy is contemplating the picture she makes, like some ancient shaman — dressed half female-half male — descending into darkness to find answers to life's mysteries ... or maybe just hairballs.
Another pearl: Levy acquires an electric bike that she pedals between her apartment and the garden shed she rents as a writing space. It's a sign of autonomy and strength, but it's also wayward and heavy. As she is cycling home one rainy night, her grocery bag splits open, spilling, among other things, a volume of Freud, lipstick and a chicken all over the road, stopping traffic. Back home, Levy, her daughters, and their friends feast on that roasted run-over chicken as they laugh and talk. It's a brief moment of grace — until the next wave of the unexpected hits.
"The best thing I ever did, was not swim back to the boat," Levy writes. "But where was I to go?" She doesn't have any clearer answer to that question by the end of this memoir than she did at the beginning. Oddly, Levy's stubborn uncertainty should reassure her readers that they are not alone in their own confusions; that there are, in fact, a lot of other bemused swimmers out there, not drowning but waving.