In past blog posts, I’ve mentioned that I hate books written in epistolary format. And in each of those posts, I admitted that I enjoyed the epistolary-formatted book in question. I guess it’s time to grudgingly concede that, no, I probably don’t hate epistolary novels (but yes, I still do hate Dear Mr. Henshaw).
For her writing debut, actress Mary-Louise Parker — probably best known for her starring role as Nancy Botwin in Weeds — has released a memoir that’s presented as a series of letters to different men in her life. Her fierce love for her father is a big theme throughout the book, but she acknowledges men both real and symbolic who have nonetheless shaped the person she is. She doesn’t usually name names — the letters are addressed to people such as “Movement Teacher,” “Lifeline,” and “Future Man Who Loves My Daughter” — but whether she’s writing about specific or hypothetical interactions, a startling amount of her own history is revealed.
In “Dear Oyster Picker,” for instance, she writes a letter to the unknown person who picked the oysters that ended up being her father’s last meal. It’s a touching letter that reveals a lot about the impact she felt from her father’s death. In other letters, she recalls interactions in which she was a brat; in hindsight, she recalls the lessons she learned from those situations. And at times, she candidly calls out men who did not treat her well:
I can do anything now from where I sit. I have five decades behind me, practically an elder, and I’m turning you into:
One mangy dog with three heads.
You are Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guarded the gates of Hell…You’ll see yourself in one of the heads of this angry dog. Ready? You mistreated me. You know who you are.
My favorite letter was “Dear Man Out of Time,” which recalled a fleeting friendship with a man with whom she felt a deep connection; he had terminal cancer and died soon after they met:
As we left the restaurant you offered me your arm and I looked at you standing half in and half out of that bistro. The city instantly seemed to exist only to blend with the portrait of you there, poised to go for a walk with me. It was maybe like seeing Fellini in Rome. All of Manhattan was either moving past or revolving around you, creating the effect of the city explaining itself by way of a man representing it. The cafes and boutiques, all the well-dressed women going by became saturated with color when they moved into your frame and you completed their picture. The Guggenheim Museum, a group of little boys in school uniforms — all of it seemed constructed to exist as the atavistic backdrop that told your story.
Parker’s writing is absolutely gorgeous, but I do think she went overboard with a few of the letters. But she’s never mean; even when she’s writing about situations where she’s well within her rights to vent, none of the essays feel negative or salacious. I admire the balance that she was able to create between sharing enough of her life to be insightful, but keeping enough private out of respect for various individuals.
Dear Mr. You was released in November 2015 by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster.