A Wildly Funny Life Story -- I, Too, Admire Your Shoes!

By Glen Retief

December 1, 2015

A Wildly Funny Life Story -- I, Too, Admire Your Shoes!

My Unsentimental Education by Debra Monroe

“I want to write the moral history of the men of my generation,” wrote Flaubert to his friend Mademoiselle Leroyer in 1864, talking of what would become his semi-autobiographical novel, Sentimental Education. “It’s a book about . . . passion such as can exist nowadays . . . inactive.” In fact, Flaubert’s Sentimental Education is anything but emotionally dead or passive. It details a young Frenchman’s intensely felt financial, sexual, and romantic mishaps against the background of the 1848 anti-monarchist revolutions.

Substitute women for men, memoir for novel, feminism for nineteenth-century bohemianism, and place our young-to-middle-aged protagonist in a green miniskirt in a Sun Belt college town. There you have, more or less, the themes and plot of Debra Monroe’s new memoir, My Unsentimental Education, which updates Flaubert’s novel for our own suburban, gender-redefining times.

The memoir’s prologue frames its tale. Miranda, a female student interested in becoming an academic, approaches Monroe, a creative writing professor at Texas State, and says, “I’m glad to have such a modern role model. And I always admire your shoes, too.” The implication is that Miranda sees Monroe as having it all—tenure, publications, a paycheck, and pretty feminine accessories as well. Next, Monroe recalls allowing an earlier female student’s parents to assume, from her wedding ring, that she enjoyed both the new 1960s female professional stature and also the older domestic satisfactions. This was bogus: in fact, Monroe was “at the tail end of a grim starter marriage: my second.” The prologue ends with her explaining to Miranda that her career happened “by accident,” and indeed the rest of My Unsentimental Education seems intended as a testimony to both the happenstance of life and the modern and liberated, yet also conflicted and unstable, female version.

There’s no question this life provides a rambunctious, hilarious, and entertaining narrative ride. Close to a dozen unhappy and dysfunctional romantic relationships with men are described, including, but not limited to, Monroe’s first two spouses, a slacker musician and an abusive, serial-failing entrepreneur. Again, as in Flaubert’s novel, serious financial problems plague this narrator: husband #2 bullies her into letting him fund his business plans on her credit cards. It takes Monroe years to ask for what she’s worth as a professor, in part, because, like many women of her generation, “I’d been flummoxed to have [job] offers at all; I’d worried about jinxing them.”

If Flaubert’s Frederic earns the respect of the Parisian bourgeoisie with his political writing, My Unsentimental Education details Monroe’s impressively steady rise as a writer and educator, from temporary first-year college dropout to Ph.D. candidate, Flannery O’Connor short story prizewinner, and tenured professor. Indeed, in one scene, Monroe keeps plugging away at the book she’s writing for tenure with saintly perseverance while husband #2 regularly calls her name into a baby monitor to come hand him tools while he’s working on restoring an old truck. At least, when it comes to book publishing, Monroe’s success clearly didn’t happen by happenstance alone.

To this reviewer the shining strength of My Unsentimental Education lies in its humor. Monroe is irrepressible, indefatigable, hilarious. In two hundred pages, little gets spared her satirical eye: not sexism, certainly not class prejudice, and least of all her own foolish choices. It’s this acute sense of the absurd in the human condition that allows Monroe to avoid any trace of sentimentality, let alone self-pity or pontification, accounting for her own formation.

For example, take the self-descriptions Monroe provides for shortly after she’s graduated from a blue-collar, small town Wisconsin high school. She has dropped out of college to follow a one-eyed drifter boyfriend to Colorado, where she gravitates towards intellectual chats—“even one semester at a regional college will improve your small talk”—and works at a concession stand in a pornographic drive-in. But, back in school in Wisconsin, after the two of them have “worn each other down,” she feels fundamentally out of place in a vapid, privileged, conventional world of “competing stereos, hairdryers, chatter.” Explaining her lost semester to Lana, a roommate, she claims: “I felt guilty getting an education without first understanding the lives of the proletariat.” At last, when she’s won Lana’s sympathy by telling her about her sister’s car accident, she ends up mute and ignored at college parties, and characterizes herself as “an especially florid wallflower . . . studying my dress’s fern-and-blossom fabric.”

I could fill pages listing such dryly witty lines: the toupee-wearing male date, who “must have thought I had hyperactivity disorder masquerading as arousal because I tilted a lot, obliging him to tilt. I wanted the toupee to slip.” Monroe’s description of the time the brakes failed on her truck and her husband was reluctant to come and pick her up inspires a self-deprecating quip only a memoirist from a blue-collar background could pull off: “If a woman who’s walked away from a truck listing on a curb, now half-sobbing into a phone, seems odd, like a gas station clerk might stare, no. I was in the low-rent part of town.”

A second strength of the memoir is its frankness. We get comparisons of the love-making skills of Monroe’s various husbands and boyfriends. Despite Monroe’s protestation that she was raised “not to talk about gynecology, or gall bladders, or livers,” the memoir provides some quite extensive details of an (ultimately benign) uterine cancer scare. Yet none of this is gratuitous literary exhibitionism. Monroe’s purpose, in the sexual revelations, is to examine a libido and brain at odds with each other. This she does movingly well, with calm and objective dispassion, as when she reflects on the pull towards casual sex after hearing her unfavorable odds of being cancer-free:

I’d stop in a bar, get drunk, have a fling, first the distraction of that, then the hangover and hard work of getting to know a stranger . . . by then, any problem I’d had before the fling [would be] old news. But that [old] life had been shifty, temporary. . . . This [happily married] life was better.

The memoir’s third virtue, to this reviewer at least, is a more ambiguous one. Critic Jonis Agee, in a blurb, says that Monroe’s prose “shimmers like a jazz solo.” Certainly the book’s sentences and paragraphs shimmer with recollections, observations, and free associations as rapidly as do those of any memoir I’ve read recently. When this technique works, it’s intensely stimulating: a fairly typical paragraph, opening Monroe’s fourth chapter, informs readers of a marriage, a divorce, Kansas graduate school culture, a Halloween party, the narrator’s inhibitions about discussing with her peers how much she misses her ex, and a quote from an “antique etiquette book,” all within fourteen short lines. I wanted to yell, “Bravo!”

Yet at times this style seems less like brilliant, improvised syncopation, and more like an enormously enthusiastic but ultimately sloppy musical jam. Thus, discussing the prelude to her job at the pornographic drive-in, Monroe provides us with a confusing and seemingly hastily-written tangle of factual details about different movie houses, owners, schedules (XXX versus horror versus mainstream), all by way of explaining nothing more important to the story than why she’d misunderstood the job description. When I have to reread several pages to understand what just happened, there’s certainly no time to absorb the more poignant emotional significance of the story.

Which brings me to my most serious reservation about My Unsentimental Education: it isn’t exactly clear to me here what the central point is of this hardboiled, no-nonsense moral lesson. Does Monroe deeply miss her blue-collar world of Spooner, Wisconsin, so different from the academic one where she ends up, making this memoir, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” a testimony to loss? If so, the profound spiritual ache doesn’t make it onto these pages, bawdily busy as they are with salary negotiations, house extensions funded by book advances, career forks, romantic and marital misadventures, and, eventually, an adopted black daughter.

So maybe Monroe’s book isn’t about nostalgia and loss. Maybe at heart it’s a testimony to straight women’s difficulties in navigating love in the modern era. Well, then, what does lie at the core of Monroe’s “trouble-with-love” that “wasn’t just my confusion—though it was, in part—but also the era’s”? Is it, again, as Monroe seems to imply, that she has moved away from “familiar communities” where “friends serve as dating letters of reference,” and so she now has to choose partners alone? Surely not—in her home town or “familiar community” of blue-collar Spooner, the “whole town weighed in, it seemed,” and concluded, incorrectly, that Monroe’s high school romance with a much older telephone repair technician, Rodney V. Meadow, would be “a good match in due time.” So much for community support in the dating game.

Or is Monroe’s point that the sexual revolution remained sexist? That one “effect of free love on women is serial monogamy entered in too rapidly because women are supposed to play the field just long enough to pick a mate”? Again, if the core of this memoir is a recognition of the dangers of too-rapid emotional commitment, then that eluded me: the idea is too rapidly introduced and then dropped.

My Unsentimental Education seems, first, a smart, entertaining, true-life romantic comedy. Second, a story of dawning artistic and literary self-awareness, a bildungsroman where its narrator figures out her place in the world, romantically, professionally, and intellectually. These are wonderful things. But then again, it’s just that the memoir isn’t what the marketing copy, the narrative framing, and the nod to Flaubert crack it up to be. It isn’t an important commentary on our times. It offers few original insights on the intersections between class and gender oppressions. In the end, it’s simply one woman’s delightfully circuitous and bumpy journey to success, love, and contentment: nothing more, but also nothing less.


My Unsentimental Education by Debra Monroe
University of Georgia Press, 2015

$24.95 Hardback | $17.25 Electronic  | Buy Now!


Kate Hopper

About the Reviewer:

Glen Retief’s memoir about growing up in a South African national park under apartheid, The Jack Bank, won a Lambda Literary Award and was selected as an Africa Book Club Book of 2011. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

comments powered by Disqus « Back to Articles

Newsletter Sign Up

shadow shadow