Limbo: A Memoir

( 5 )


From childhood, acclaimed novelist A. Manette Ansay trained to become a concert pianist. But when she was nineteen, a mysterious muscle disorder forced her to give up the piano, and by twenty-one, she couldn't grip a pen or walk across a room. She entered a world of limbo, one in which no one could explain what was happening to her or predict what the future would hold.

At twenty-three, beginning a whole new life in a motorized wheelchair, Ansay made a New Year's resolution to ...

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From childhood, acclaimed novelist A. Manette Ansay trained to become a concert pianist. But when she was nineteen, a mysterious muscle disorder forced her to give up the piano, and by twenty-one, she couldn't grip a pen or walk across a room. She entered a world of limbo, one in which no one could explain what was happening to her or predict what the future would hold.

At twenty-three, beginning a whole new life in a motorized wheelchair, Ansay made a New Year's resolution to start writing fiction, rediscovering the sense of passion and purpose she thought she had lost for good.

Thirteen years later, still without a firm diagnosis or prognosis, Ansay reflects on the ways in which the unraveling of one life can plant the seeds of another, and considers how her own physical limbo has challenged—in ways not necessarily bad—her most fundamental assumptions about life and faith.

Luminously written, Limbo is a brilliant and moving testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
A. Manette Ansay's childhood dreams of being a concert pianist were thwarted when she came down with a mysterious muscle disorder. By the age of 21, she couldn't grip a pen or walk across a room. But she could still write, and she has written a moving and heartfelt account of her life before, during, and after her medical struggles.
Publishers Weekly
In this gorgeous memoir, Ansay (Vinegar Hill; Midnight Champagne) recounts how, at the age of 19, an undiagnosed muscle disorder cut short her promising career as a concert pianist. Describing memory as "the switch on the wall. The pull chain on the lamp," Ansay beautifully illuminates selected details of her Catholic childhood, her struggles with religious faith and her growing realization that her illness is a permanent one. In her rural community, where "illness and shame still go hand-in-hand," Ansay's family is unsympathetic to undefined injuries. Head colds call for "hot whiskey punch with lemon and sugar," and toothaches are cured by chewing on the other side of one's mouth. In deference to her musical ambitions and religious upbringing, Ansay tries to transcend her pain, suffering through piano lessons, recitals and conservatory training. But she never lets this memoir devolve into one of those stories about "crippled children with heroic personalities." In fact, she pokes fun at such narratives: "Thanks to the power of faith... the family rallies around the child, discovering in the process that instead of a tragedy, this child is the greatest blessing of their lives." Instead, Ansay reveals the painful indignity of having a debilitating physical condition that is immediately visible: "It's right there, out in the open, where anyone might choose to poke at it, probe it, satisfy their grim curiosity." (Oct. 16) Forecast: Ansay's novel Vinegar Hill was an Oprah-anointed bestseller; that and a generous marketing campaign including advertising in the New York Times Book Review, as well as a 15-city NPR campaign will give this memoir well-deserved prominence. Copyright 2001 CahnersBusiness Information.
Library Journal
When Ansay, a 19-year-old piano student, experienced extreme pain and weakness in her arms and legs, she reacted by covering it up and practicing more. Illness, she had been taught, only happened to those who didn't try or pray hard enough. But trying and praying didn't help, and neither could the doctors. Finally diagnosed with a mysterious multiple sclerosis-like disorder, Ansay had to abandon her dream of being a concert pianist. In an attempt to make sense of her life, she began writing fiction. This memoir follows a collection of short stories and four novels, including Midnight Champagne, a finalist for the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award. Ansay writes with the conviction and authenticity of one who has had to give up on her dream and find a new sense of purpose. Despite weakening eyesight and limited activities, she embraces her life of writing and teaching with enthusiasm. Readers will enjoy the account of the carefree summers on her grandparents' farm, and some will empathize with her struggles to reconcile her illness and her belief in God. Recommended for all large public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/00.] Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Ansay was on her way to the prestigious Peabody Conservatory of Music and a promising career as a concert pianist when she developed a progressively debilitating condition that left her unable to use her arms or hands without braces and only with considerable pain. This memoir is an account of the outward manifestations of her illness-the progression from trying to control her unyielding foot, to soaking her aching and unmanageable limbs after each grueling attempt to play the piano, to being forced to give it up altogether. More significantly, though, this is an account of Ansay's thoughts and reactions to her condition. She ponders her disability in the light of her rigid Catholic upbringing in a small Wisconsin farming town, and loss of faith while in college. She moves from a conviction that this pain and suffering is somehow her fault through a total loss of spirituality to the ultimate knowledge that her present life is moving in a most rewarding path, somehow made possible by her illness. She marries an understanding but not pitying young man, and she achieves a fuller comprehension of her place in this world and the joy it can bring her. Teens will follow her from her secure and sheltered childhood, where she is full of mischief and the "second-fastest kid at Lincoln Elementary," through her years of diagnosis and treatment to the adult she has become. She is now waiting for the next stage of her life to begin and sure she will make the most of whatever comes along.-Susan H. Woodcock, Chantilly Regional Library, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
After four novels (Vinegar Hill, 1994, etc.) and one story collection, Ansay debuts in nonfiction with a thoughtful memoir of affliction and redemption. Ansay trained throughout childhood and adolescence to become a concert pianist, but by the time she was 20 her ambition was thwarted by a paralyzing illness that left her unable to walk-or to play. Doctors were mystified by her condition, which may have had something to do with an on-and-off bout of strep throat but certainly wasn't helped by a punishing routine of musical training. ("Injuries were commonplace," she writes, "particularly among pianists, particularly among female pianists. A girl one floor down from me fractured her arm landing a Beethoven chord.") Confined to a wheelchair for the past 15 years, Ansay has transferred her energies from music to writing, becoming a favorite of Oprah and midwestern booksellers alike. Her memoir touches on these matters, but it spends greater time exploring, with considerable grace and clarity, matters of the spirit. Purgatorial lessons such as hers are taught, she writes, because "God is simply testing you, testing the condition of your Faith." As she revisits her own suffering, she recalls that of her mother, who grew up working in the fields before the age of seven but spent her Sundays singing in the choir. Though she occasionally slips into self-indulgence, Ansay shies from self-pity. Indeed, most of her madeleines are recalled in fine humor, as when she recounts her first childhood lesson in learning how to lie: "At school, if somebody asked what I'd had for breakfast, and I'd had eggs, I'd say, ‘Cereal.' Why? Just because I could." That's an essential talent for a writer, ofcourse, and Ansay has cultivated hers well. A graceful, wonderfully written memoir that's sure to please Ansay's fiction fans-as well as readers of confessional and inspirational literature.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380732876
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 496,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

A. Manette Ansay

A. Manette Ansay is the author of eight books, including Vinegar Hill, Midnight Champagne (a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award), and Blue Water. She has received the Pushcart Prize, two Great Lakes Book Awards, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the University of Miami.


A. Manette Ansay's first novel, Vinegar Hill, established the writer as a novelist who could tell a difficult story with great grace. Born in Michigan in 1964 and raised in Port Washington, Wisconsin among a huge Roman Catholic extended family, Ansay infuses her fiction with the reality of Midwestern farm life, the constraints of Roman Catholicism, and the toll the combination can take on women and men alike.

Philosophical and cerebral, with a gift for identifying the telling domestic detail and conveying it in a fresh way, Ansay incorporates the rhythm of rural Midwestern life -- the polka dance at a wedding reception, the bowling alley, community suppers, gossip, passion, and betrayal -- into novels that illuminate the most difficult aspects of maintaining any close relationship, whether it be familial or not. In Vinegar Hill, Ansay examines the forces that hold a Catholic woman in the 1970s hostage to her emotionally abusive marriage. In Midnight Champagne, set at a wedding, she focuses her lens on the institution of marriage itself; the story is told through the shifting points of view of the couples who attend the event.

Readers and critics alike have testified to her talents: The New Yorker said of Vinegar Hill, "This world is lit by the measured beauty of her prose, and the final line is worth the pain it takes to get there." The novel was selected for Oprah's Book Club in 1999; Ansay's following book, Midnight Champagne, was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

Like Flannery O'Connor, whom Ansay cites as an influence, Ansay is concerned with moments of grace in which the truth suddenly manifests itself with life-changing intensity. In the wrong hands, her material could be the stuff of soap operas. But Ansay strives for emotional complexity rather than mere bathos, and addresses both suffering and joy with intelligence and sensitivity.

Ansay's life has been as complex and fascinating as the dramas that unfold in her novels. A gifted pianist as a child, she studied at the University of Wisconsin while still a high school student. Later, while a student at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, she was afflicted by a disease that devastated her neurological system, cutting short her dreams of becoming a concert pianist, and leaving her confined for years to a wheelchair. She had never written fiction before, but turned her disciplined ear and mind to writing, promising herself to write two hours a day, three days a week, the same sort of disciplined schedule she had imposed on herself as a student musician.

Limbo, Ansay's story of her struggle with illness, is as evocatively written as her novels. Ansay never descends into sentimentality, but instead confronts her medical problems – and the limitations they impose – unflinchingly, describing both the indignities that disabled people face daily, as well as how her own illness has become a personal test of faith.

Good To Know

Ansay was still looking for the appropriate title for her first novel when, on the way to a meeting with her MFA advisor near Cornell University, Ansay spotted a street sign with the answer. "I happened to glance up and see a street sign that said "Vinegar Hill." It was perfect," Ansay writes on her web site. "I had never turned onto that street before, and I made a point never to do so afterwards. I wanted it to belong solely to my characters. And it does."

One scene in Midnight Champagne, the air-hockey table encounter, was written for a friend of Ansay's. She writes, "A friend of mine had been musing about sex and literature, and she said, 'Why is it that we so seldom read about the kind of sex we want to be having?' I said, 'What kind of sex is that?' She said, 'Fun sex.' I said, 'I'm writing a scene just for you."'

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    1. Hometown:
      Port Washington, Wisconsin; now lives in New York City
    1. Date of Birth:
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lapeer, Michigan
    1. Education:
      MFA, Cornell University, 1991

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

I have moved eleven times in the sixteen years since leaving home, a word that to me will always mean southeastern Wisconsin, and the little town where I was raised, and my grandmother's one-hundred-acre farm seven miles to the north. At thirty-six, wading through the shallows of middle age, I have been permanently shaped -- and am still held fast -- by landscapes that exist in memory alone, though this makes them no less real when they come to me in dreams, when fragments are triggered by a random fact or phrase. Here is my body's lost exuberance. Here is my Catholic faith, that Gothic cathedral, that haunted house. Here are the straight highways, the crops and their seasons, the blue haze of Lake Michigan: wide open space beneath a close sky.

It doesn't take much -- a look, a phrase -- and suddenly I'm a child once more, running hard and fast down a narrow dirt road that has since been developed into another antiseptic side street, the fallow fields surrounding it sold, subdivided, populated by three-bedroom ranch houses, each wrapped in vinyl the color of a hospital gown, each with its garage door shut, an expressionless face, like someone waiting for bad news. Yet there's no sense, as I run, that I'm recreating something, repainting this landscape as if by numbers, filling in color and sound. I'm simply here, I'm home, and any return to the present will be informed by what I've seen.

How is it that, for this splendid moment, I'm able to run -- something I haven't done since I was twenty -- elbows pumping, heels striking the earth, carrying myself deeper into a place that is nowhere, nothing, lost, in a body whose unselfconscious sense of movement, whose entitlement to such movement, is lost as well? The part in my hair feels like a cut where the August sun strikes against it, the skin tingling pink. There's a sweet, cold ache in my chest, a lemonade taste in my mouth. I feel as if I could run forever, but, of course, I'm wrong. When the ball of my foot meets a stone, I suck in my breath and hop toward the ditch, where I collapse matter-of-factly to inspect the damage.

A coin of blood, bright as a posy. In its center, a pebble. A scrutinizing eye.

Automatically, I offer my thanks to God, my pain to the Poor Souls in Purgatory. The pebble is God's message, His communication, His way of making me pay attention; I study it the way I'd study a difficult problem at school. Give thanks in all circumstances, the Bible says. Perhaps, the pebble kept me from running ahead into the path of a rattlesnake sunning itself in the dust. Perhaps, the pebble has delayed me just long enough to prevent me from crossing Holden Street, where I live, just as a speeding car hurtles through. In my world, in the deep, underwater sleep of belief, there is no such thing as an accident. Just because you can't find the reason doesn't mean it isn't there. God is simply testing you, testing the condition of your Faith.

I imagine my Faith like a diamond or ruby, a shining, precious stone. Something that must be protected. Something that can be shattered, stolen, lost. A person who loses their Faith, I know, becomes an atheist. The sound of the word gives me the feeling I get when, at slumber parties, my friends and I sneak outside. We walk through the darkness in our flimsy nightgowns, pretending there is somebody following just behind us, a man dressed in black and holding a knife. We can feel his hot breath on our shoulders. We can hear him licking his lips. We stare straight ahead, taking slow deliberate steps, for he's unable to touch any of us -- as long as we all stick together. As long as nobody looks back.

I stand up, brush off my shorts, eager to head back home. Already, the pebble is a story I can tell, a currency to be spent. I'll walk all the way to Holden Street on my heel, careful not to jar the pebble loose. There, I'll find my younger brother and make him watch me dig it out. If he's admiring, I'll let him keep it. If he feigns indifference, I'll tell him about tetanus, enact the grim onset of symptoms, suck my cheeks hollow as starvation sets in. When he's on the verge of telling our mother, tears bright in his eyes, I'll admit that I've had a tetanus shot.

Then, with slow relish, I'll describe the length of the needle, how the nurse shoved it in, to the bone.

"The cradle rocks above an abyss," Vladamir Nabokov writes, "and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

Memory, then, like the switch on the wall. The pull chain on the lamp.

My first memory is of memory itself -- and the fear of its loss, that vast outer dark.

One night, as I lay floating in the still, dark pond between wakefulness and sleep, a stray thought breached the surface like a fish. You will forget this. I opened my eyes. To my right, tucked under the covers beside me, was an eyeless Raggedy Ann doll. To my left, on top of the covers, was a large plastic spark plug -- a display model that my father, a traveling salesman, had coaxed from some farm dealership and presented to me. My father's gifts were unpredictable and strange: hotel ashtrays, pens with company slogans trailing down their sides, desiccated frogs and snakes he found along the highway, jaws pulled back in agonized smiles. These things populated the bedroom I shared with my two-year-old brother...

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Interviews & Essays

Exclusive Author Essay
Point of view is the vantage point from which the world is observed, the story is told. If that vantage point changes, the point of view shifts, and the story reshapes itself to accommodate the new perspective. One landscape is lost, but another is gained. The distance between is called vision.

In my early 20s, my health rapidly deteriorated for reasons that are still unclear. At 19, I was a piano performance major at a nationally renowned conservatory; by 21, I was so weak I couldn't stand up long enough to take a shower. After spending a year under my parents' care, visiting specialist after specialist, my health improved to the point where I could return to my life -- though a different one -- with the help of a power wheelchair. Limbo is the story of learning to live within the physical and emotional limbo of an undiagnosed illness, an uncertain prognosis, an uncertain future. It is also the story of how the unraveling of one life can plant the seeds for another, and the ways in which illness has challenged -- in ways not necessarily bad -- my most fundamental assumptions about life and faith.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, I was formed by a place where the roads met at right angles, a landscape in which cause and effect were visible for miles. I was raised to believe that every question had its single, uniform answer, and that that answer was inevitably God's will. But the human body, like the life it leads, is ultimately a mystery, and to live my life without restraint, to keep moving forward instead of looking back, I have had to let go of the need to understand why what has happened has happened. It is not that I believe the things that happen to us happen for a reason. I certainly don't believe that "things have a way of working out for the best," something I've been told countless times by well-meaning doctors, family members, and friends. But I do believe that we each have the ability to decide how we'll react to the random circumstances of our lives, and that our reactions can shape future circumstances, affect opportunities, open doors.

The writer Ann Patchett talks about awakening in the hospital after a terrible car wreck at the age of eight, and thinking, with absolute clarity: Now I can be anything, and I want to be a writer. I started writing on January 1, 1988, shortly after I began to realize that this new, altered body was mine to keep. Thirteen years and five books later, I continue to write as a way of making sense of a world that doesn't. I write to create the kind of closure that rarely exists in life. The best advice on writing I've ever heard is this: Try to write the kind of story you yourself most want to read.

Limbo is that story. (A. Manette Ansay)

A Life in Limbo
From the September/October 2001 issue of Book magazine.

What happens if you strip a writer bare? A. Manette Ansay, suffering from an unidentified disease that limits her physically, is the pure essence of a writer.

What happens if you strip a writer bare? What happens if, like a grade-schooler wielding a soft pink eraser, you rub away the penciled-in curlicues of a writer's life? Get rid of physical trappings? Take away the safaris, the drunken fountain cavortings, the quiet garden tending? What if you distill the writer to such an extent that even the writing itself -- the small-gestured and yet intensely corporeal act of putting down the words -- is no longer the ritual morning spent writing longhand on ledger sheets, or the late-afternoon banging on a near-antique Royal typewriter, or even the postmidnight session tapping quietly in the intimate, alien glow of a monitor screen?

What happens if you collapse a writer's life like a piece of origami, folding it tighter and tighter? Take away mobility and insert pain, take away energy and insert weariness, take away concentration and insert eyes that blur after a few minutes of reading? What happens if you take a writer's physical life and leave only her mind?

Here is my body's lost exuberance, writes A. Manette Ansay, conjuring up the Midwestern landscapes and timescapes of her childhood in Limbo, her new memoir. In the book's opening chapter, Ansay slips into a dream of an unremarkable day, only made remarkable in retrospect because the little girl with straight dark hair running along a dirt path is, in fact, running:

How is it that, for this splendid moment, I'm able to run -- something I haven't done since I was twenty -- elbows pumping, heels striking the earth, carrying myself deeper into a place that is nowhere, nothing, lost, in a body whose unselfconscious sense of movement, whose entitlement to such movement, is lost as well? The part in my hair feels like a cut where the August sun strikes against it, the skin tingling pink. There's a sweet cold ache in my chest, a lemonade taste in my mouth. I feel as if I could run forever, but, of course, I'm wrong.

The lost exuberance is literal: Since Ansay's late teens, her muscles and nerves have degenerated in mysterious and exasperating ways, from intense pain in her arms to near-uselessness of her legs to perhaps the greatest physical insult -- the inability to read for more than twenty minutes at a time before the sharp outlines of printed letters blur and bleed into confusion.

In Limbo, Ansay unsentimentally describes what's happened, and continues to happen, to her body. She teases her medical narrative out of a quirky childhood in a smallish and perhaps small-minded Wisconsin town on the shores of Lake Michigan, weaving it through two ultimately frustrating years of piano study at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore (where her physical state worsened considerably) and ultimately to her increasingly circumscribed life as a writer. Her memoir's title is descriptive and wry -- the obvious play is on Ansay's rigid, near-obsessive, Catholic upbringing, but the true essence of the title evokes the author's physical reality. Her degenerative condition, which she says was misdiagnosed early on as multiple sclerosis, remains medically undefined, her prognosis vague. Manette Ansay wakes up every day and wonders what her body will or won't do. She must resist the great human inclination to make long-term plans. (Tracey Minkin)

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 2, 2002

    A Dose of Reality

    This was an excellent memoir. Ms. Mansay seems much wiser than her years. As a person with physical disabilities myself, I found her outlook realistic, but still uplifting. She really hits a chord when she describes our society's tendency to blame the sickness on the person afflicted. Her comparison of herself and her father was moving. I thought she portrayed her family in a loving, supportive light. I found much insight into the human condition in this book, and would recommend it to anyone.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 17, 2002

    An Excellent Read!

    Ansay does a beautiful job of describing her childhood in rural Wisconsin, her stuggle with faith and the disability that took away her dream of becoming a concert painist. She pulls readers into the story, and by the end of the book she shows readers what a gift having a disability can be. Her disabilty strengthened her faith and made her life what it is today.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 7, 2011

    Very Highly Recommended

    Oh my God, can this incredibly gifted author write!!!! This was one of the best reads for me in years! This memoir wrapped a fishnet around me and gently pulled me in. This book is so descriptive and moving; you truly ache with Ann's pain, both literally and figurative, in various moments/months of her life. Few people would continue to be so driven, when facing so many obstacles. Ann continually seeks the beauty in hours of piano practice, when strangers or relatives disappoint her. When her health attacks her passion for music, she must do an enormous u-turn, and seek a new passion; thankfully for us, she discovers that she can WRITE. I plan to buy everything she has written. A bonus for me, is that we have both lived in Wisconsin. Her love of rolling hills, barns, dairy cows and hard work, seeps into your bones. Hated for this memoir to end! You must buy this book. I recommend a hardback, if you can find one! You will want to re-read this. Ann, please come back to Madison to read from your latest book!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 11, 2013


    I want to read this book

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2015

    No text was provided for this review.

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