Memoir is a tricky genre. Keeping true to the facts of one's own life story does not always go hand in hand with compelling writing. Sure, we all feel that our life stories are fascinating, but how can we be sure that other people will feel the same? By writing about common human experience.
In the case of Lee Montgomery's memoir, The Things Between Us (Free Press, 222 pages, $23), that common ground is a loving yet dysfunctional family forced together by tragedy. The members of Montgomery's WASP-ish Massachusetts clan have not been united in almost a decade when their patriarch—a smirking, garden-loving geriatric known as "Big Dad"—is diagnosed with stomach cancer. Montgomery (executive editor of local literary magazine Tin House) must reluctantly face her alcoholic mother and her older siblings, Bob and Lael, as they care for their dying father.
Montgomery's self-deprecating style, similar to David Sedaris', makes her unafraid to confront her own shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. But where Sedaris is dry and witty—we laugh at his neuroses and nod at the resemblances between his family and ours—Montgomery adopts an air of self-pity. With a mother who drank gin for breakfast and siblings who were emotionally as well as physically absent, a steadfast father was the only true family she had. As the consummate youngest child, she worries how terrible she will have it when her father is gone and there's no longer anyone to rescue her from her mother, Bob and Lael. Her sadness is not for her father or the rest of the family's loss, but for herself.
Montgomery succeeds, however, in depicting the anxiety of death precisely and poetically: "Despite a blood pressure of seventy over nothing, I stubbornly think that something else is going on.... The man is drugged, not dying." And she employs the present tense expertly, smoothly weaving memories of her rural childhood into her adult narrative. But her inability to get over her childhood trauma—like believing her siblings were uncaring when, in fact, they were simply too much older to share her childhood—keeps her own emotions at the forefront of a greater tragedy.
Perhaps most revealing is why she chose to be an editor: "I am...someone who helps other people tell their stories, mine too complicated for me to decipher." Montgomery indeed tries too hard to explain the circumstances of her own life. Remember back in high school, when your English teacher told you to "show, not tell"? All this author does is tell: "Here is why my family is messed up," she writes bluntly, and then gives an example. Having reached every conclusion possible about her family, she leaves no room for readers to make their own judgments. Montgomery's life isn't too complicated for her to decipher—she's just too self-indulgent to do so.