"Pretending life has progressed according to plan is part of anyone's job," writes novelist (and more recently memoirist) Debra Monroe. In "On the Outskirts of Normal," Monroe wrote about her life as a single working woman who adopted a baby girl of a different race. In "My Unsentimental Education" (a title that tips its hat to Gustave Flaubert's novel "Sentimental Education") she recounts her life as a young woman bucking the expectations of her family and rural community in Spooner, Wis., by pursuing a life in higher education.
Before you imagine a triumphant rise through the ranks of academia, a spectacled, supportive husband by her side, let me assure you that this is not that kind of memoir. Monroe does not glamorize one moment of her early years with constant financial worries and juggling of complicated relationships with college and graduate school work that her father warned her would "educate her out of the marriage market."
Despite the lack of support, Monroe decided that "dreams get sacrificed, I'd think, not writing." She continued to write and pursue a doctorate, and in the midst of a flurry of exams, and a pile of rejections of her short stories, she won the coveted Flannery O'Connor Award. While she was focused and persistent at her chosen career, her personal life was less successful. Her second husband had proved himself untrustworthy — the repeated brake failures in her truck seemed to have a nefarious tie to his self-interests — and after discovering his continued deception she was on her own again.
Monroe set down roots in Texas, dating and working, then choosing her daughter, Marie, over her beau, taking on the responsibility of making her choices in life without the collective opinion of a community that she had grown up in. "I'd lived all over, and I'd lived by my wits, making choices by myself. If I turned out to be wrong … I alone was responsible, alone."
Monroe came to her life, professional and personal, at a time where women were just finding their freedom in the world. In her own words, she "lived like a man," though the men she lived with left something to be desired. (One day she overheard a professor describe her as "reasonably intelligent, but with unaccountably bad taste in men.")
As Monroe so succinctly puts it, she luckily has "had a vagrant heart but a sense of direction too," which in the end puts her with a perfectly blended family — a good man, and a rich literary life that sings from the pages of this book.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.