I love Sandra Tsing Loh, ever since I read Aliens in America and Depth Takes a Holiday. She’s a funny writer – particularly when she uses her sharp wit to write about her personal life, including her eccentric parents – a Chinese father and a German mother. I picked up her latest The Madwoman in the Volvo with a lot of excitement because it’s been a long time since her last collection, 2008’s Mother on Fire: A True Motherf%#$@ Story About Parenting. What I love about her work is that she’s brutally honest and very candid about herself – even though she’s honest about the faults of those around her, she’s very critical about her behavior as well.
In The Madwoman in the Volvo, Loh writes about her midlife crisis, exasperated by her divorce and menopause. I read about Loh’s divorce a year or so after Mother on Fire and was saddened because a lot of her comedy comes from her riffing on her relationship with her husband. In The Madwoman in the Volvo, she writes about the end of her marriage, in part caused by his work as well as her affair with her best friend. It’s tricky to create narrative about the death of a marriage, when the narrator is at fault – and Loh doesn’t let herself off the hook – she’s pointedly candid about her role in the dissolution of her 20-plus year marriage and the damage it does to her self esteem.
While not offering excuses, Loh does give reasons – there’s a difference. The author recognizes that the marriage was limping toward its inevitable conclusion, yet she’s understanding of her ex-husband’s anger and resentment toward her. And when she takes up with her best friend, it doesn’t go well, at all. But because Loh’s such a sympathetic voice, readers won’t feel an ounce of schaudenfreud – instead, there’s a sadness.
And if her marital woes weren’t enough, she’s also going through menopause – a tricky subject for humorists to tackle. I wrote a post about comedy and menopause a few years ago – it’s a subject that’s cloaked in cliche, mystery, misogyny, and mythology. Loh writes about the physical and emotional changes and struggles she faces – including how these changes affect her mothering, and she approaches the subject not only with her trademark humor, but she also some prodigious research, which arms her with information that makes the experience slightly less confusing.
If my description makes the book sound sad, it’s because often it is. I laughed out loud quite a bit, but there were moments when I was able to empathize with her frustration – whether it was with her career, romantic relationship, friendships, or navigating life when her body was going through changes.
But please know this: The Madwoman in the Volvo is a very funny book. It’s wonderfully written and Loh does a fantastic job to create a voice that is at once sympathetic but not drowning in self-pity. It’s a difficult balancing act for the author because she’s dealing with potentially thorny details that might turn some readers off. Those readers should set aside their judgement, because Loh’s story is important.
Click here to buy Sandra Tsing Loh’s The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones on amazon.com.