A hilarious and moving memoir in the spirit of Anne Lamott and Nora Ephron about a woman who returns home to her Mennonite family after a personal crisis.
The same week her husband of 15 years ditches her for a guy he met on Gay.com, a partially inebriated teenage driver smacks her VW Beetle head-on. Marriage over, body bruised, life upside-down, Rhoda does what any sensible 43-year-old would do: She goes home.
But hers is not just any home. It's a Mennonite home, the scene of her painfully uncool childhood and the bosom of her family: handsome but grouchy Dad, plain but cheerful Mom. Drinking, smoking, and slumber parties are nixed; potlucks, prune soup, and public prayer are embraced. Having long ago left the faith behind, Rhoda is surprised when the conservative community welcomes her back with open arms and offbeat advice. She discovers that this safe, sheltered world is the perfect place to come to terms with her failed marriage and the choices that both freed and entrapped her.
This tartly told memoir with its tenderhearted core and luscious detailings of tangy borschts and double-decker Zwiebach buns slathered with homemade rhubarb jam is an honest, philosophical chronicle of poet and English professor Rhoda Janzen's return home at 43, to her Mennonite family, after being chewed up by a soap operatic sequence of very real personal calamities.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress begins when Janzen's botched hysterectomy leaves her Velcro-strapping a urine collection bag to her thigh for six months. Just as she's snapped back from incontinence, Nick (her hunky, frequently drunk, charming, bipolar, and verbally abusive husband of 15 years) leaves her for Bob, a man he's met on Gay.com. That same week, a tipsy teen driver crashes Janzen's car on a snowy road. She ends up with two broken ribs and a fractured clavicle. "Under circumstances like these, what was�a gal to do?" she asks. "I'll tell you what I did. I went home to the Mennonites."
What transcends Mennonite in a Little Black Dress from a series of zany essays on "Menno" culture (a capella singalongs, raisins, and sweater vests) is Janzen's deeply nurtured respect for her community. She observes that, like the rest of us, Mennonites struggle with bratty children, substance abuse, dieting, and cheesy first dates an admission that opens up her quest to re-learn happiness into a universally felt exploration.
Janzen's spiritual leader turns out to be her sunny, irreverent mother, Mary, whose bouncy perceptions of sorrow, death, marriage between first cousins, and bodily functions she casually breaks wind at Kohl's while inspecting bundt pans end up revealing how intimately she grasps the true order of things. Hillary Huber is the narrator of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress and her droll, throaty voiceover perfectly pitches to Janzen's acerbic wit and academic background. A master quick-change artist, Huber so nimbly spins into bubbly, chattery Mary Janzen that when she conspiratorially shares, "A relaxed pothead sounds nice", about Rhoda's latest fling, it registers as mildly as "Please pass the Cotletten, dear." Nita Rao
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