As a longtime writer and editor, most notably for the New Yorker and New York Magazine, Ariel Levy knows the power of the lede — a journalistic term for the opening paragraphs of a story. The lede can pull readers into a feature or repel them within a few sentences. In the second paragraph of her new book, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” Levy writes, “In the last few months I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house.” Fifteen simple words is all it takes to hook the reader.
Levy grew up as the only child of two caring and ultimately incompatible parents. She was “sensitive,” according to one child psychologist. Or perhaps she was just in tune with her mother’s ongoing affair with a family friend, her father’s erratic employment, and her mother’s dictate that Levy should never depend on a man and that she would have to make her own living.
As she entered the workforce in New York City in the 1990s, Levy operated under a sense of control, a trait that served her well as a writer. (Writers “are accustomed to the power of authorship,” she remarks later.) She traveled abroad and pursued stories without a single contact or knowledge of the area, she pitched ideas that could have fallen flat, she took chances and was rewarded with plum writing jobs.
But that sense of entitlement also meant that Levy took other risks that did not have positive results. She had an affair with a woman, Lucy, whom she later married and then cheated on with a former flame. Levy drank to excess with Lucy in the early days, but while Levy was able to curb her drinking Lucy sank into alcoholism.
At the center of the memoir is Levy’s pregnancy, and the subsequent tragic death of her premature baby in a hotel in Mongolia while she was on assignment: It was the subject of her award-winning essay in 2013 for the New Yorker, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Her grief permeates the last third of the book and creates a broader context for readers of that original essay (which is replicated sometimes word-for-word throughout the memoir).
Levy is an incredibly talented writer who has built a solid body of work, but “The Rules Do Not Apply” does not have the same energy that her magazine writing is known for. There are glimpses of raw emotion — when she explores her ambivalence and guilt over her affair or the aftermath of the birth and death of her son — but for the most part the reader is left with the fact that a promising lede doesn’t always deliver.
Meganne Fabrega is a book critic and freelance writer. She lives in New Hampshire, but has deep Minnesota roots.
The Rules Do Not Apply
By: Ariel Levy.
Publisher: Random House, 207 pages, $27.
Event: With David Sedaris. 7 p.m. June 17, Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul.