Verdict: By focusing on the mirroring physical and emotional growth of a mother and daughter, author Nicole Dieker places the experience of two middle-class women center stage and invites the reader to reflect on subjects ranging from coming of age and domestic concerns to the larger themes of education and opportunity.
“You’re going to ask me how much of this book is true. I’m going to say none of it—and stick to it,” are Nicole Dieker’s first words to her readers in her first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People (the sequel is forthcoming). The book follows, over an eleven-year period, the “ordinary” lives of the five Grubers: mother Rosemary, father Jack, and daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie, whom we meet initially in their empty Portland home, on Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday, on the verge of the family making its long journey to Kirkland, Missouri, population 2053, where Jack will be taking a job at Kirkland College. His plans are to eventually get tenure.
Right off the bat, we learn not only of the importance of learning in the Gruber household, but of the joy and challenge it brings. References to childhood classics, PBS shows, and exchanges between the young girls and their parents as they name instruments from tunes emerging out of the classical station during the long car ride immediately highlight the values of this middle-class family with two musician parents: education is everything.
Organized in short, readable, and chronologically organized chapters or episodes, the reader witnesses the family’s arrival in Kirkland, Meredith’s budding friendship with Alex, Jack’s purchase of a used piano for his wife, a dinner with the neighbors, and many other events until their graduation and Meredith’s matriculation, all reported in precise detail in chapters clearly named to highlight each event.
Dieker’s structural tactics strangely reduce the experience of a life into numbered parts; the reader imagines Dieker is perhaps attempting to draw out a deeper reflection on time’s passage through her methodical process, as indeed many of the events she describes seem to accrue without any veritable upheaval or excitement: these are simple lives focused on small-scale events, material goods, social interactions, and cultural phenomena. In fact, the only true excitement of the book is the advent of the internet. “This is world-changing,” one of the characters reports.
About two thirds through the book, with the girls now grown, the reader also begins to witness events such as first boyfriends and periods, and the book shifts into what seems like YA territory, losing its voice for a while, but enduring in its meticulous approach. To her great credit, formally-speaking, there is something staunchly depressing about the passage of time at the hands of Dieker, whose two volumes begin with Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday and, jacket copy asserts, will end with her daughter Meredith’s very same birthday. Is life, then, but a series of photographic memories, material things, and accomplishments? Or is there a larger feeling binding it all together? Readers find themselves pondering such philosophical concepts.
Issues specific to women abound in this volume. As the characters’ lives develop initially, we sense that Jack’s import thins, his presence erodes, while Rosemary’s difficulties at developing her identity and Meredith’s development take center stage. Natalie, the middle daughter, finds herself somewhat short-changed, a true absence in the family dynamics, as well. A mise en abyme halfway through the book confirms its concerns with women, when, after the family watches Fiddler on the Roof, Meredith reflects that it “turned out to be about girls after all. All the good stories [are] about girls and women.” And so this is the story of a mother’s inner growth, a growth mirrored in her older daughter’s: two women at different stages, grappling with the same difficulty of forming an identity. What in the female experience, even in a seemingly “ordinary” life causes such an outcome? These parallels between mother and daughter are tender and sometimes devastating in their simplicity, and Dieker strikes the right tone in reporting them: “Meredith watched girls and women to see what happened to them, but also to look for pieces of herself, and to see what the characters who carried her pieces might do with their lives.”
What we owe Dieker in this volume, is the generosity with which she allows her characters to move without the weight of judgment, as evidenced with passages such as, “It was part of her job, making the right kind of world for her family. It was exhausting.” The reader gets the sense that Dieker is observing these personalities and reporting on their simple, middle-class lives, asking the reader to ponder, what is an “ordinary” life? Is such a word able to describe any life at all? Are women ordinary? Is any woman ordinary?
~Emily Martin for IndieReader