Imagine you finally have it all figured out: you're married to the love of your life, you're living in your dream home, and you're expecting your first child. Now, imagine you wake up a month later to find it all has all burned down around you, and you're left with nothing but the pain, the memories, and a picture of your dead son. It seems like an impossible litany of tragedies for one person to overcome, but in her frank and unflinchingly sincere memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, writer Ariel Levy seeks to prove the resilience of the female spirit in the face of a reality where no one can have it all.
If you're familiar with Ariel Levy's work, that you already know the seeds of her story. In her 2013 essay for The New Yorker titled "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," Levy recounts the heartbreaking tale of losing her son after going into premature labor while on assignment in East Asia. That devastating piece of personal writing, which was highly praised and went on to help the author win a National Magazine Award, became the anchor for Levy's newest book,The Rules Do Not Apply.
Unlike her previous book Female Chauvinist Pigs, which was a cultural critique of women's sexual objectification and and exploration of its relationship to female empowerment, Levy's memoir draws from the author's personal experiences and packs a much harder emotional punch. Starting with her childhood growing up in Larchmont, New York and ending with her devastating loss in Mongolia, The Rules Do Not Apply goes everywhere else in between: to Levy's twenties, where she caught her big break at New York magazine, had a handful of less-than magical relationships, and got caught up in an affair that would lead to marriage; to her early thirties, where she found herself caught between the desire to be free and adventurous and the pull of motherhood and stability; and finally, to the prelude of her ultimate tragedy, the volatile period of Levy's life where she was battling (and losing to) her wife's alcohol addiction and her own infidelities, until the magical moment where she finds out she is pregnant.
And although we know from the beginning of the book how that story ends, it's how Levy get there, and where she chooses to go from there, that makes The Rules Do Not Apply a truly remarkable read.
A gut-wrenching, emotionally charged work of soul-baring writing in the spirit of Joan Didion, Helen Macdonald, and Elizabeth Gilbert, The Rules Do Not Apply is a must read for women. Here's why:
1Levy understands the importance of telling stories.
Before jumping into her own story, Levy takes time at the beginning of her memoir to explore exactly why telling stories, especially women's stories, is important at all. In recounting her first big assignment with New York magazine — she decides, without asking her editors, to profile a nightclub for obese women — Levy is honest about her fears of being a new writer, and confesses that it's her desire to tell real stories that helps get her through.
Her experiences talking to these fat women, learning about their lives and their experiences, their fears and their truths, shape Levy's career in a profound way. She follows this thread of telling true stories about real women, women the rest of the world was happy to overlook or criticize, throughout her life, and even more so, in her memoir.
2It's not just Levy's story — it's many women's stories.
Levy's memoir isn't just a narrative about her life. It's a story about every woman who has ever been told they should sit down, shut up, and behave a little bit better, a little bit more like a girl. Levy has always considered herself to be one of those women society deemed "too much."
"People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much," the author confesses. Throughout her life, she is faced with this criticism that she was too much like a man, not enough like a woman. She asks for too much, demands too much, strives for too much. But instead of letting it change her or diminish her, she uses it to inspire her work as a writer, and as a storyteller.
From the start of her career in the 1990s to the assignment that brings her to Mongolia that fateful November to the narratives of she shares in her memoir, her own and the subjects of her journalism, Levy seeks out and tells "stories about women who are too much," as she puts it.
3She captures the complex relationship between modern womanhood and motherhood.
While her memoir covers many aspects to Levy's dizzying life, The Rules Do Not Apply starts, ends, and is centered around one particularly heartbreaking story: the delivery and subsequent loss of her son. And while she isn't afraid to share her grief over his death, she doesn't shy away from discussing the conflicting emotions many modern women have about motherhood, either.
"To become a mother, I feared" Levy admits to readers in the first chapter, "was to relinquish your status as the protagonist of your own story." Levy articulates what so many young women feel about the prospect of having children: the fear of losing control of your own life, of losing all your independence. While she grapples with these complex emotions, she also can't help but notice the pressures society puts on her, and other women, to hurry up and become moms already.
"One day you are very young and then suddenly you are thirty-five and it is Time. You have to reproduce, or else."
Levy identifies the desire to be free and the pressure to have a family that pull most women back and forth, but recognizes in herself that, ultimately, she wants to become a mother. When she does finally become pregnant, "It was like magic," she describes. "A little eye of newt in my cauldron and suddenly I was a witch with the power to brew life into being."
Although it ended in heartbreak in a hotel bathroom, Levy says "the truth is, the ten of twenty minutes I was somebody's mother were black magic. There is no place I would have rather seen."
4She is unabashed about her emotions, even the most difficult ones.
Women — especially women often deemed "too much" — are told to calm down, bottle their emotions, and relax. As females, we're conditioned to hide our emotions, because they're a sign of weakness, of being "less than" male. But Levy doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks about her feelings, and she unflinchingly describes every single one.
From her desire for her wife to her anxiety about her career, her fear and frustration about her failing marriage to her elation about motherhood, Levy candidly, unapologetically explains her feelings with clarity and ease, especially those around the loss of her son.
Levy's experiences, and her own emotional narrative, reminds readers that feelings are natural and meant to be felt and expressed, wholly and without shame.
5Levy wants you to know you can't have it all, but wants you to try anyways.
"Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism," Levy explains to her readers "a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us." She uses this framing throughout her memoir to examine the choices she makes, including her career, her marriage, and, ultimately, her decision to have a child.
As she gets older, however, and her perfect narrative starts to fall apart, Levy begins to recognize the truth: life is rarely what we expect it to be.
Levy doesn't come to this conclusion with negativity or a feeling of defeat, but rather a sense of acceptance, and even excitement. She understands that having it all, whether you're a successful businessman and family man or a divorced lesbian and grieving mother, is impossible. The important part is that we try, because life is never what we plan for, but that doesn't mean it's not worth living.