"It Takes a Worried Woman" is the title of the new essay collection from author Debra Monroe, yet it is not the title of any of the essays and as far as I can see, does not appear in the body of any of the pieces. So, the question arises: It takes a worried woman to do what?
To sound the alarm, I think. Maybe a worried woman can't do all that much to end sexism, racism, acquaintance rape, hate crimes, the collateral damage of the pandemic, climate change, chronic illness, death and grief. But she can certainly make us think about these things. These 14 essays are edgy, nervy and anxious, alloyed and stabilized by a generous base of intellect, insight and humor. Fans of Jo Ann Beard will recognize a similar blend and effect.
If the Worried Woman were a superhero, a finely developed sense of irony would be one of her signature weapons. For example, in the opening paragraph of "My Taciturn Valentine," Monroe writes, "Whether the strong, silent lover found in books and movies caused me to believe in the strong, silent lover sitting near me on a barstool, or the fantasy of the strong, silent lover sitting near me on a barstool — near any woman — causes his double to recur in art, is a chicken-or-egg question."
Or, "Good lovemaking doesn't happen right away. They say that. I wouldn't know. I never waited to find out."
But in other essays, where the silent man has morphed into a rapist or a batterer, the slightly clueless female friends into hurtful reality-deniers, the irony evaporates, replaced by simple repetition. Look at this. Look again. No, look again.
Monroe's 2010 memoir, "On the Outskirts of Normal," described her adoption of a Black baby girl as a single mother living in rural Texas. Now, her daughter has gone off to college at a small-town university (it seems to be Texas A&M, but it isn't named.) Terrifyingly, her daughter is involved in several incidents of targeted racial violence. These events are touched on from varying angles in at least four essays: "The Wrong Conversation About Hate Activity," "Through the Bathroom Window at Dusk," "The COVID Sunday Drives" and "Mistletoe." Three of the four of these are previously published, but Monroe has chosen not to modify the pieces to weave them into a linear narrative — she brings up the issue each time as if it's the first.
This is often the case in collections of previously published pieces; that may well be its origin here. But in "It Takes a Worried Woman," it seems to work as a device rather than an irritation. The same thing with her husband's near-fatal bike accident, her mother's violent second husband and problems relating to her house and neighborhood.
This collection doesn't focus on finding hope and giving comfort. Even the endings of individual essays tend to stop short in a moment of regret or anguish. As a different type of woman with different life circumstances than Debra Monroe, I kept looking for the soothing counterpoint, the ray of light that is in my nature to crave and find. To get it, I had to keep flipping back to read the one happy ending out of the 14.
In it, a kitten that was almost killed but wasn't "eventually became an old cat blinking in the lap of an old man across a roomy room from a contented old woman, me. I didn't foresee any of that."
Whew. I needed that. One can only hope life has more unworrisome surprises in store for Debra Monroe, and for the rest of us.
Marion Winik is a writer and professor in Baltimore.
It Takes a Worried Woman
By: Debra Monroe.
Publisher: University of Georgia Press, 175 pages, $19.95.