BN Review

“The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In”: Lucia Berlin in Fiction and Memoir

Three years ago, Farrar, Straus and Giroux released Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women and ignited a bestselling sensation. Although Berlin had won awards in her lifetime and attracted the attention of Lydia Davis, The Atlantic Monthly, and Black Sparrow Press, she was very much an obscurity, and the immense success of Manual was far from assured.

What was assured, however, was that Manual’s healthy sales would guarantee more of Berlin’s work being unearthed, and now we have two more volumes. As I read them—her unfinished autobiography Welcome Home and her heavily autobiographical story collection Evening in Paradise—I felt that I was watching a woman process her struggles to emerge into herself. These struggles were very much at the forefront of my mind while I was reading Berlin, as I was literally a woman fighting for my existence—I had been taking estrogen for about five months as part of my transition into the female sex, and I was just beginning to get the slightest grip on my own femininity.

What I most related to in Berlin were the very visible battles to erase the needs and desires that had been projected onto her for her entire lifetime, and the frequently vicious emotions that this process could summon. She seemed a woman fighting to uncover her own voice and speak with it truthfully and without shame. It was a challenge that I had been living for years, and one that I finally felt I was winning.

Reading these new volumes by Berlin, I felt that I was encountering a soul who was finding it in herself to snap back at the society that had judged and shaped her, brilliantly diffusing this defiant gesture all throughout her storytelling. The two recent volumes collecting her work that have been released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux demonstrate that she was a true master of the short story—and it’s always a little hard to believe when a writer as talented as her goes as long underappreciated as she has. In terms of skill and theme, her work is in the category of Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro, and Marilynne Robinson, with Berlin charting a marginal, postwar side of America that is not commonly seen in our literature. What makes it her own it its particular salty edginess, as well as her deep knowledge of Latin America and life along the U.S.-Mexico border, her writing bringing to mind many brilliant Latin American authors as well.

Perhaps Berlin’s relative neglect has something to do with her life—peripatetic to the extreme, full of ruptures and uncertainty, more the life of an adventurer than the desk-bound regularity of the career author. And also, it must be said, the life of a woman who was treated harshly by the men around her and expected to put their needs before hers.

Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters

Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters

Hardcover $25.00

Welcome Home: A Memoir with Selected Photographs and Letters

Lucia Berlin , Jeff Berlin

Hardcover $25.00

Much of this existence is chronicled by Berlin herself in Welcome Home, an autobiography left incomplete at the time of her death and now published in conjunction with the story collection Evening in Paradise, the follow-up volume to 2015’s breakout reissue A Manual for Cleaning Women. Although Berlin married multiple times, raised four children, and socialized relentlessly, her observational eye gives her the feel of a loner always peering into worlds that aren’t exactly hers. It’s the pose of a woman who is still trying to find out what she wants, and later in life this distance develops into that of the consummate outsider artist: indifferent to careerism, rejecting the ordinary pursuit of social status , fitting her work in around a lifetime of chores, childrearing, exploration, odd jobs, and pure living.
Welcome Home must be ironically named, because it is structured around the twenty-some places Berlin lived in her first 30 years, including a Volkswagen  van that toured around southern Mexico en route to Guatemala. It’s less a narrative than a picaresque travelogue that’s unified by Berlin’s characteristic existence, perpetual nomadism, and oblique perspective. It’s a very strangely constructed, highly original memoir, and I’m so disappointed that the entire book never had an opportunity to come into existence. A hint at what we are missing out on is given in a list of “the trouble with all the houses I’ve lived in” that Berlin’s editors at FSG have appended to the end of the narrative. Entries include: “avalanche the day I was born”; “over a ham factory—my W.H. Hudson still smells like ham twenty-five years later”; “I burned it down”; and “Jack in the Box until 2 am.”
With the assistance of Berlin’s son Jeff, her editors have also included photos of her interspersed from throughout her life, and they add very much to the text. The sense of yearning and quiet struggle that seem central to Berlin’s personality are at odds with these photos, showing an elegant woman often smiling broadly and frequently brimming with a mother’s love for her children. The discontinuity syncs up with the telling of Berlin’s life: one that’s always being thrown off-balance by the latest uninvited rupture, a that of a person determined to find happiness and beauty where she can despite repeatedly drawing so many bum cards. From this too-brief text emerges a multi-faceted and complex woman whose misgivings over the world she was born into seem destined to move her toward a transformation that, unfortunately, we never get to see.

Much of this existence is chronicled by Berlin herself in Welcome Home, an autobiography left incomplete at the time of her death and now published in conjunction with the story collection Evening in Paradise, the follow-up volume to 2015’s breakout reissue A Manual for Cleaning Women. Although Berlin married multiple times, raised four children, and socialized relentlessly, her observational eye gives her the feel of a loner always peering into worlds that aren’t exactly hers. It’s the pose of a woman who is still trying to find out what she wants, and later in life this distance develops into that of the consummate outsider artist: indifferent to careerism, rejecting the ordinary pursuit of social status , fitting her work in around a lifetime of chores, childrearing, exploration, odd jobs, and pure living.
Welcome Home must be ironically named, because it is structured around the twenty-some places Berlin lived in her first 30 years, including a Volkswagen  van that toured around southern Mexico en route to Guatemala. It’s less a narrative than a picaresque travelogue that’s unified by Berlin’s characteristic existence, perpetual nomadism, and oblique perspective. It’s a very strangely constructed, highly original memoir, and I’m so disappointed that the entire book never had an opportunity to come into existence. A hint at what we are missing out on is given in a list of “the trouble with all the houses I’ve lived in” that Berlin’s editors at FSG have appended to the end of the narrative. Entries include: “avalanche the day I was born”; “over a ham factory—my W.H. Hudson still smells like ham twenty-five years later”; “I burned it down”; and “Jack in the Box until 2 am.”
With the assistance of Berlin’s son Jeff, her editors have also included photos of her interspersed from throughout her life, and they add very much to the text. The sense of yearning and quiet struggle that seem central to Berlin’s personality are at odds with these photos, showing an elegant woman often smiling broadly and frequently brimming with a mother’s love for her children. The discontinuity syncs up with the telling of Berlin’s life: one that’s always being thrown off-balance by the latest uninvited rupture, a that of a person determined to find happiness and beauty where she can despite repeatedly drawing so many bum cards. From this too-brief text emerges a multi-faceted and complex woman whose misgivings over the world she was born into seem destined to move her toward a transformation that, unfortunately, we never get to see.

Evening in Paradise: More Stories

Evening in Paradise: More Stories

Hardcover $26.00

Evening in Paradise: More Stories

Lucia Berlin

In Stock Online

Hardcover $26.00

Although Welcome Home and Evening in Paradise are two very different books, they are unified by Berlin’s deadpan observations, as well as her ability to construct both herself and her female protagonists as women who are at once vulnerable, controlled, defiant, and seeking to discover how to live confidently in an often callous world of men. In many ways, the stories in Evening in Paradise feel like an expansion of Berlin’s memoir, as so many of them include exact details from her life. From a neighbor in rural New Mexico who primes a pump with beer (Hamm’s, if you’re wondering), to a husband who tells his wife to sleep on her nose to fix her only imperfection, plus an adolescent woman who comes of age in Chile, the similarities between Berlin and her protagonists are striking for their precision, whether the details are big or small. The collection is also structured like a autobiography, starting in early childhood and moving through young adulthood into maturity—the protagonist may change from story to story, but locales, characters, and struggles recur, leaving one with the sense of the same person’s story being told from many different angles. Perhaps most impressive is Berlin’s knack for capturing the characteristic feel of each era of life: whether the child’s naïve eagerness or the grown woman’s languid contemplation, she is a writer who does it all.
Berlin reminds me of the great Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant for her ability to imbue her work with a massive scope, — even within just a few pages – as well as her finesse in turning every detail in her work into something authentic and meaningful. She possesses the indispensable talent of effortlessly zeroing in on what is timeless and elemental in our lives. Berlin is a poet of those moments destined to dwell eternally in our memories with an undiminished vividness and magnitude, no matter how often we examine them as we age. This memoir and collection bring her into view as a major American author – one whose time readers can be grateful has finally come, even if Berlin herself was never able to enjoy such a moment.

Although Welcome Home and Evening in Paradise are two very different books, they are unified by Berlin’s deadpan observations, as well as her ability to construct both herself and her female protagonists as women who are at once vulnerable, controlled, defiant, and seeking to discover how to live confidently in an often callous world of men. In many ways, the stories in Evening in Paradise feel like an expansion of Berlin’s memoir, as so many of them include exact details from her life. From a neighbor in rural New Mexico who primes a pump with beer (Hamm’s, if you’re wondering), to a husband who tells his wife to sleep on her nose to fix her only imperfection, plus an adolescent woman who comes of age in Chile, the similarities between Berlin and her protagonists are striking for their precision, whether the details are big or small. The collection is also structured like a autobiography, starting in early childhood and moving through young adulthood into maturity—the protagonist may change from story to story, but locales, characters, and struggles recur, leaving one with the sense of the same person’s story being told from many different angles. Perhaps most impressive is Berlin’s knack for capturing the characteristic feel of each era of life: whether the child’s naïve eagerness or the grown woman’s languid contemplation, she is a writer who does it all.
Berlin reminds me of the great Canadian short story writer Mavis Gallant for her ability to imbue her work with a massive scope, — even within just a few pages – as well as her finesse in turning every detail in her work into something authentic and meaningful. She possesses the indispensable talent of effortlessly zeroing in on what is timeless and elemental in our lives. Berlin is a poet of those moments destined to dwell eternally in our memories with an undiminished vividness and magnitude, no matter how often we examine them as we age. This memoir and collection bring her into view as a major American author – one whose time readers can be grateful has finally come, even if Berlin herself was never able to enjoy such a moment.