Fidelity, Identity, Disappearance, Wanderlust

Book review: The Art of Vanishing, by Laura Smith

Writer and journalist Laura Smith viewed her upcoming wedding quite differently than what might be considered standard. She didn’t relish being the center of attention. She deeply loved and wanted to be committed to her fiancé, but had trepidations about the institution of marriage and all that it entails – what it said about her identity as a singular person. She already shared an intensely close relationship with her partner, both being at-home freelancers who spent much of their working days together. Was she losing some essence of cherished freedom by marrying?

“Stifling” is the word she uses repeatedly throughout to describe her ideas about the institution of marriage.

I refused to take engagement photos because who would ever believe that we were spontaneously bounding through a field at sunset holding hands? Or making out in front of a brick wall? Who was this photo for? 

I found these kind of musings on marriage and weddings hilarious. Maybe because I also dreaded the attention and circumstance of a formal wedding and never was attracted to the idea of it, and always felt like an outlier in this area myself. It was nice to hear the thought process from a kindred spirit in this perceived minority!

Smith wants to change the rules, to make up her own and break them at will, and most importantly never to allow marriage to become the confining cage it shifts into for many. This leads to some unconventional decisions as their relationship progresses and they both feel the squeeze of panic, leading them to attempt to break out of the rut of complacency and conventionality. Something feels missing to her in life, despite her loving and comfortable relationship.

That’s a running theme throughout Smith’s story of her marriage – the idea of who owns who, even lovingly, and what of your life really belongs to you.

My mother-in-law had sat us down on her porch and said, “Maybe you should consider going away for a few months instead of a year.” I felt something constrict in my chest. She seemed to be asking us not to change or to get onto some kind of track…We would come back…to “regular” (i.e., office) jobs and daily routines…Teaching – that was fine in your twenties, as long as it was a stepping-stone to something more prestigious…It was time to grow up and get serious. This line of thinking made me want to run screaming in the opposite direction. I couldn’t describe the life I wanted, but this was not it.

Running parallel to the chronicle of Smith’s marriage (which includes their adventurous trip to live abroad for a year in Thailand, then moving to New York where Smith pursues graduate studies) is the story at the heart of her research: that of Barbara Newhall Follett, a spirited onetime child prodigy and published novelist by age twelve, who mysteriously disappeared in 1939, when she was 25.

The key element is that Follett was in a crumbling marriage, one that had seemingly curtailed her independent spirit, exactly as Smith is afraid of. The dissolution of Follett’s marriage seems to be significantly tied to either her decision to walk out of her own life without a trace, or else perhaps her husband was involved in her disappearance. It’s never been solved. But he was having an affair, she was headstrong and proud, and never seems to have recovered from her beloved father’s abandonment of her and their family – similarly for reasons of infidelity.

There’s no evidence Follett’s husband committed a crime, but there’s no proof he didn’t either. There’s just…nothing, really. Her mother searched devotedly and close friends and family shared their ideas and opinions as time passed, but not a trace of her ever surfaced, alive or dead. Smith becomes understandably captivated with this strange tale – this woman who bounded so far ahead so quickly in life, already a published author before hitting her teens, who had sailed the ocean with professional sailors, fallen in love while hiking and mountain climbing, who had survived and even thrived – maintaining a fantastic creative inner life despite her family’s breaking apart and her work at a boring office day job, and then somehow lost it all.

Interestingly, Follett climbed New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a location familiar to another infamously vanished and never found young lady, Maura Murray. She’s another figure surrounded by rampant speculation – questions about whether she faked her own disappearance to escape the confines of an increasingly controlling and potentially dangerous relationship and/or the difficulties and typical everyday troubles of a world she was growing up into and struggling to stay afloat in. Or, if all that didn’t lead her to engineer her own disappearance, then perhaps she was murdered. Murray isn’t mentioned here, but I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. (And today marks the 14th anniversary of her disappearance, I didn’t even realize when scheduling this – weird.)

Chapters here alternate between Laura’s story and the decisions she and her husband make both to quench their wanderlust and to assure themselves they’re not like everyone else, that they won’t be trapped in a boring, conventional relationship. This leads their exploring an open relationship. Unfortunately, as this progressed, it was where the book took a major downturn for me, and it was a shame because I loved it up until then.

It’s not that I disagree with their choice, whatever makes two people happy, is consensual and doesn’t hurt anyone is fine by me, but it seemed so clear that it wasn’t right for them. It made me sad. Maybe that’s entirely on me, because the idea of having an open marriage breaks my heart and if my husband ever broached the topic, I would be irreparably devastated, and I also don’t care if that makes me boring and conventional. So I found it hard to grasp her reasoning.

All to say that maybe it was my hangup on this topic that made me hate this part of the story. But it just felt so sad – you could see them both being hurt, causing rifts and damage that seemed likely to haunt them later, questioning each other and themselves, experiencing the inevitable jealousies – it was an all-around bummer.

This book is full of people not learning the lessons that they wrote themselves, both the author herself and Barbara’s family who she’s obsessed with learning more about. Both father and daughter Follett wrote fiction, and they seemed doomed to write their solutions in fictionalized form without understanding how to apply these truths to themselves and their real lives. Smith quotes one passage poignantly but simply: “You cannot run away when the thing you are running from is yourself. The sea is inside you.”

It’s the lesson that runs throughout both narratives of the entire book.

Smith is a remarkable writer. The book is beautifully written. Even when the narrative took those turns that made me cringe, I couldn’t put it down. I finished it in a day, staying up until 2 am on a Saturday and that’s pretty much the best compliment I can give a book. It’s wonderfully compelling and strangely escapist.

I also saw destruction’s revolutionary potential. From the mess you make of your life, you could build something new and it might be better – you might be better. [A friend] asked me once if I envied Barbara. Of course the answer on some level was yes. To seize your life and abruptly change course – to disappear – that seemed like real power. The saddest way to leave is to fade, to stay too long at a party when the hosts are yawning and want you to leave. There was something alluring to me about premature departure, about people wanting and missing you, or not really ever having you.

Gorgeously written page-turner of parallel stories and lives, with a few misses but mostly hits amongst intertwined topics. An unsolved mystery and an uneven relationship, explorations of wanderlust and what it means to have a life with another person – and if that’s even truly possible, or else facing the decision to live one’s life free and independent but alone. A lot to think about, wrapped up in very lovely writing.
My verdict: 3.5/5

The Art of Vanishing:
A Memoir of Wanderlust
by Laura Smith
published February 6, 2018 by Viking (Penguin)

I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.

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4 thoughts on “Fidelity, Identity, Disappearance, Wanderlust

  1. This sounds like such an interesting read. I like the idea of an open marriage, as long as it makes them happy. It sounds like this was not the case for this couple. I might have to give this book a read anyways. Thanks for sharing your honest review.

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    1. Yeah. As I wrote, whatever makes those involved happy, but it’s a downer to read about, or maybe the way her experience played out and she described it. I actually loved all the parts of the book packed around that storyline.

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  2. I really enjoy books about marriage and the roles women play, so I’m definitely intrigued by this one. I share your feelings on open marriages though and so I’m guessing I may also dislike that part of the story. I’m also not sure about the theme of wanting to just disappear from your life. I don’t think it’s something I’d relate to.

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    1. I think it’d be up your alley. The disappearing topic doesn’t play into the memoir aspects, the author’s not considering it herself, more just that she doesn’t want a conventional marriage with any perceived “confines” that might entail. In the course of her panic over that she gets fascinated by this woman who seemed to feel and act similarly, but might have gone to the extreme of actually disappearing from her life – but nobody really knows. So I don’t think that aspect of disappearing from one’s life should be particularly troublesome. But I felt my stomach sink when the open marriage topic began and the way she describes the whole thing made it sound even more of a stone cold bummer. She has a pretty happy relationship and the things she describes as freaking her out about domesticity or complacency or whatever don’t sound that bad at all to me, more like…normal, non-stressy life stuff? So I found it really hard to relate or empathize or anything. But I do think it’s a worthwhile read, there’s something wholly engrossing about it. She’s a great writer.

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