Mennonite in a Little Black Dress

I laughed. I cried. It was better than Cats.

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is one of the funniest and wisest books that I’ve read in a long, long time. Rhoda Janzen is simply hilariously funny. I have rarely laughed out loud as often during a book as I did with this one. At the same time, Rhoda is almost blindingly intelligent (I haven’t looked up this many words since The Geography of Love), achingly full of empathy, and hugely self-aware, but in a not-at-all-arrogant way.

Rhoda’s tough year spent recovering from botched surgery with a catheter and a urine bag strapped to her leg was just the prelude to the really, really bad week that kicks off the action of her memoir. Her husband of 15 tumultuous years leaves her for a man (Bob) that he met on, and she is in a car accident that leaves her with serious injuries. In response to these world-shattering events, Rhoda moves home to California and moves in with her Mennonite parents.

I think my favorite thing about Rhoda’s memoir is the delicate way she points out the incongruities and hilarities of the religious community of her childhood while also clearly honoring them. There is no disrespect in her descriptions, which is quite a feat given how much humor she finds. The tales of her mother’s uncanny and unselfconscious public bodily commentary and the detailed descriptions of the peculiarities of traditional Mennonite food are downright hysterical. And yet these – and so many more laugh-out-loud stories – are told in a loving, respectful way.

Rhoda’s stories of her interval at home are interwoven with reflections and memories from her childhood. Her family is full of characters both entertaining and endearing; I particularly loved her steady, serene, practical sister, Hannah. The shorthand the sisters share, full of private references and the deep intimacy of a common and unique childhood, reminds me of the way that Hilary can say to me, eyebrow cocked, “ADC? Q Kamir? The Happy Hallwegers?” and make me burst instantly into the laughter of keen recognition.

I can’t recommend Mennonite in a Little Black Dress enough. Rhoda’s voice alone is reason to start this book. Tonight. I absolutely adored spending time with her. I want to be her friend! The memoir is also deeply moving. It is a testament to the strength of Rhoda’s spirit that she overcomes crises that would crush the average person with both her sense of humor and steadfast faith in the essential good of the world intact. As she sinks into the comfort of her family’s embrace, realizing the ways that her life has irrevocably ruptured, Rhoda opens to an awareness of the great unknown of the universe. This is, of course, a universal experience, I think, and one for tales of which which most of us have a huge appetite. Only a masterful writer, thinker, and person like Rhoda Janzen can have me laughing uproariously on one page and on the very next reduce me to tears with sentences like this:

…I suddenly felt destiny as a mighty and perplexing force, an inexorable current that sweeps us off into new channels… And how sad it suddenly seemed to be buffeted by the powerful currents to which we had yielded our lives. So many years had passed. My childhood, my early friendships, my long marriage, all seemed to hang from an invisible thread, like the papery wasps’ nest outside my study window. I had watched the lake winds swinging and tipping it, expecting it to go down, but it never did. Memory swayed like that next – hidden but present, fragile yet strong, attached by an unseen force to perpetual motion.

I loved Mennonite in a Little Black Dress. I will be hearing Rhoda’s keen observations, shot through with her trademark humility and intelligence, in my head for a very long time. Her memoir is a rare thing: a book that really makes you laugh and that really makes you think at the same time.

9 thoughts on “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress”

  1. It is a fact, Lindsey, that your reviews on books are written so beautifully that you can make me want to read anything. This book sounds amazing.

  2. My sister and I listened to this on our recent Memorial Day roadtrip. We laughed so hard we nearly had to pull over. And, though it didn’t happen, we both could have cried. So many stories that could have been our own. So many beliefs (and lack thereof) that she unfolded, twisted, and turned. So much beauty she invited us to – even in the craziness of our own religious upbringing.

    A definite must-read. And hearing? Rhoda reads it herself. FABULOUS!!!

  3. Pretty much the only loss of my commute to Providence has been that I don’t listen to books on tape anymore. When I did, I really loved it when authors read their stories themselves!

  4. Firstly, you must be a speed-reader, like that man from the micro machines commercials-remember those? 🙂

    And of course, I’ve added this to my list. Sounds so good. One day, we’ll have matching libraries. 🙂

  5. It’s gotta be tough to tell funny stories about a religious heritage while still remaining respectful. Something I’d like to know. Thanks for the recommend.

    BTW: I was so incredibly touched by your words in Kristen’s post this week. Especially how you touch on the idea that it is the questions we should be living, not the answers. How profound. An inspired insight.

  6. I, too, adored this book, for all the reasons you listed. It’s the best memoir I’ve read in a LONG time. I rarely buy books in hardcover, but after reading the review in the NYT, I had to buy it.

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