Julia Sweeney’s new book If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother comes a whopping 19 years after her first book, God Said, ‘Ha!’ In her first book, the comedienne-monologist dealt with her cancer diagnosis, as well as her brother’s death from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. She tackled these potentially depressing subject with respect, care, but with a disarming wit and a sly penchant for dark humor. In the almost-two decades that followed, Sweeney lost her father, another brother, had a daughter, got married and moved from Los Angeles to suburban Wilmette, Illinois. She also successfully reinvented herself from a former Saturday Night Live comic to a well-respected writer and wit, specifically due to her work on humanism. In If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, Sweeney uses her particular brand of comforting humor to write about becoming a mother, getting married and dealing with the death of a loved one – as expected, the book is a triumph.
The first thing readers will notice about Sweeney’s writing is not how funny it is (it’s hilarious), but just how charming and inviting it is – to use a threadbare cliché, when reading it, it feels like talking to a friend. She’s able to replicate the quirky cadence, the impish nuance, and the slightly sarcastic delivery of her live performances onto the page – an estimable achievement. Another high marker of Sweeney’s writing style is her ability to convey the same exasperation of the absurd that she probably felt at the time she was experience the story. There are lots of examples of this, most notably when she describes the arduous process of adopting her daughter from China; each step is recounting with a nonplussed air of “Can you believe this?” The bizarre comedy of her journey to motherhood has several hilarious peaks, including a moment when she’s finally handed her daughter, while a public domain copy of the Titanic theme is playing in the background because the adoption agency wanted emotional music; or the moment in the airplane ride on the way home when Sweeney’s reminded that she’s a mum after a fellow passenger wakes her from a nap to say, “Hey lady – your baby’s on the floor.”
As evident with the title of the book, motherhood is important in the book – not only Sweeney’s but her own mother’s. The title is inspired by a throw pillow her mom bought her with the pithy saying stitched on the front. Initially, Sweeney’s response is unenthusiastic, but holds on to the pillow to spare her mum’s feelings, and finds herself growing to like it so much, that she takes it as an affront when her own daughter grows out of the pillow as well. Those who know Sweeney will understand that her mother has had a huge influence on her life and career – and Sweeney’s recount of motherhood makes several wise allusions to her own mum’s parenting.
But it’s not just about babies – Sweeney also discusses her love life, and her second marriage in particular. The story of how she met her husband is priceless. Her dating tales are poignant because of Sweeney’s history – a failed marriage, a major health issue, and then single motherhood: these momentous instances inform her life, as well as the relationships she had – and often they sabotaged the relationships, as she shares bravely in the book.
There’s an easy-going charm with If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother, that belies a story that has lots of challenges and obstacles. And Sweeney wisely faces the obstacles without easy, facile platitudes or self-help jargon. This is especially needed when she writes of her brother’s death after years of alcoholism. As an author, Sweeney eschews clichés and instead writes of the intense pain as well as the grief she went through watching him die; she doesn’t gloss over his shortcomings, but doesn’t devolve into bitter rantings, either. She’s surprisingly objective when discussing her brother’s faults, but never relinquishes her love – it’s a beautiful chapter, that admittedly isn’t a knee-slapper, but still very necessary for the book’s overall message.
At the end of the book, I got the feeling that Sweeney’s wisdom was hard-earned, as was her appreciation for life. Given the level of talent she displays, hopefully, readers won’t have to wait another 20 years for another book.