“What would you do if you had your whole life ahead of you, if you never thought about how or why you might die?”
Edelstein scrolls through potential matches on OKCupid one February evening under a duvet on a mattress in her new Brooklyn apartment. Then, she learns her father has died in his Baltimore home following cancer brought on by a rare gene mutation. Re-evaluating life choices she made in light of her father’s diagnosis—and discovering she, too, has the potentially deadly gene mutation—Edelstein’s memoir reckons with how to understand a very turbulent time in her life by analyzing the decisions of her pasts and what she truly wants for the future.
This Really Isn’t About You. By Jean Hannah Edelstein. Picador (UK). 2018. Paperback
How did I get the book?
I found this book in a stack of excess copies at Lutyens & Rubinstein when I interned there in January. As I was boxing them up for the charity shop, I was welcome to take anything that struck my fancy. Something about the title tickled me and I also quite liked the cover, so into my purse it went. The US edition cover is a bit different, though.
You can purchase the book for yourself here and support independent bookstores!
What did I think?
The heart of the memoir lies in Edelstein recounting her family’s history, from the story of her parents meeting as young students in Glasgow to the various family members who died of cancer related to Lynch syndrome, the aforementioned gene mutation. “Sometimes it seemed to me that my grandmother’s main family legacy was an excessive, embarrassing preoccupation with healthy bowel movements,” she writes, though she finally understands the worry after her own diagnosis. Edelstein mainly focuses on her father, highlighting little memories of him such as the way he made special pancakes for everyone on weekends. Although there are aspects of their final conversations that escape Edelstein, she concludes, “Our love for each other was something I have to believe, that my father and I both knew and trusted.” She loves and fears her resemblance to him, too, rubbing cream into her face and feeling as though the lines in her forehead are the same as those in his. The more Edelstein massages the lotion and thinks about her family genes, the more she realizes, “Even if your parents are very old and have had a rich and well-loved life, if you love them there is never a time in your life when you will feel that you don’t want them any more.”
This understanding of her family is twinned with Edelstein’s delayed coming-of-age, trying to get her life “almost under control” in her thirties after spending her twenties in Montreal, London, and Berlin. “I loved being young,” Edelstein writes, “although of course at the time I didn’t know that being young was what I was, or what I loved.” Her decision to return to the states was not really one of age, but more directly related to her father, who died six weeks after she moved. She then questions the decision. “Arriving in New York for the first time at thirty-two felt like getting to a party and colliding at the entrance with a lot of people who got there before you: you’re trying to find space to hang your coat up while they’re trying to reclaim theirs, because they’re ready to go home,” Edelstein writes, feeling nowhere as interesting as the other women she meets and wondering if whatever she is aiming for is even possible. It makes Edelstein, new in her diagnosis, nostalgic for her youth. “The problem of having my whole life ahead of me, free and clear and open for anything, was that having an unlimited number of options made the chance of choosing the wrong thing so high,” she writes of her younger self, but adds, “How wonderful to be young and alone and free…in a body I knew so little about.”
Edelstein is continuously trying to come to terms with all of the change, even as it feels wrong. “It seemed like in death my father was wearing the jersey for a team that did not deserve his support,” she writes, “he wasn’t there, not really.” Similarly, when accepting her own diagnosis, she feels, “It was hard to mention cancer in relation to myself without making people panicked or uncomfortable or upset. Nothing is different, I’d say, to make them feel better. But what I really wanted to say was: I wish I didn’t know this.” She makes frequent attempts to control her life: deciding to have sex because it was one choice she had over her body, finally taking initiative in choosing partners after years of waiting to be chosen, posting her colonoscopy scan images on Facebook as a cheeky response to women getting pregnant as she debates needing a hysterectomy. But the control only goes so far. “One thing I had in all of my years of living far from my parents was the confidence if all else failed, I could go home,” Edelstein writes, but with her father gone and her mother also making lifestyle changes, she also must understand how she can better rely just on herself.
🌟 3/5 — Good
When Edelstein attended a writing workshop to start drafting this book, someone told her she had hit the narrative jackpot. The material here is indeed rich. The presentation of it, however, could have afforded to be stronger and perhaps more linear. Starting the story in a section called “Between” that documents her father’s passing then falling far back in time to rehash her university days was a confusing strategy. I had trouble connecting all of the threads. Edelstein also shies away from reaching much of a conclusion about many things that happen. Sure, no one ties life up with a bow, but stories do at times help us to better understand it all.
Despite this, Edelstein hits her strongest moments when her observations are vulnerable, such as after she learns her father has passed and admits she thought, “Maybe I should kill myself, and then I thought: Actually, I guess that is not the point of this at all.” Describing the moments when she took comfort in seeing patients that looked sicker than her father or when she had to accept that crying does nothing to ease her loneliness lets the reader in a little in the way that is desired from the memoir genre at-large. “I believed that if my life derailed it would be because I made bad decisions that could not be remedied,” she writes in another brave moment, easing off of her need for control. “It never occurred to me that the path of my life was anything but unpredictable, meandering, despite my best attempts to shape and control it. I did not ever consider that my fate was written in every cell of my body. Scripted in the twists of my DNA.”
Beyond the book.
In addition to writing this memoir, Edelstein has done a lot of journalistic work for various publications (she actually touches upon some of this in the book, going over her windy writing path). One moving column she wrote for The Guardian back in 2018 explores her experience with IVF and trying to become pregnant. It shows the depth that her writing can take and the ways she has also grown since as a writer the memoir’s publication.
Edelstein has also continued to advocate for Lynch syndrome awareness, participating in a video campaign this year to discuss the importance for people to get tested and learn more about it.
See you again soon!