oddmonster (oddmonster) wrote in bookish,

Review: Drinking: A Love Story, by Caroline Knapp

# 76: Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp:
It happened this way: I fell in love and then, because the love was ruining everything I cared about, I had to fall out.

This didn't happen easily, or simply, but if I had to pinpoint it, I'd say the relationship started to fall apart the night I nearly killed my oldest friend's two daughters.

Synopsis: A woman chronicles her problems with alcoholism, men and the deaths of her parents.

Right off the bat, let me make something clear by invoking a phrase that summons the true wisdom of all the ages: Hate the game, not the player. From there, I will say that I have a huge amount of admiration for anyone who owns up to their addiction and takes steps to overcome or even just fight against it. It's a huge undertaking and a terrible burden to have to live with.

But it also doesn't automatically make you a great writer.

Caroline Knapp spent several decades being a high-functioning alcoholic. She wrote newspaper columns during the day, kept up long-term relationships with two men, coped with her parents' deaths from illness both within the span of 18 months and drank copiously throughout. After they both died, she was able to admit that her drinking was out of control. She went to rehab, got sober, stopped dating one of the men and wrote a book.

The book is terrible.

It's 230 pages that circle around the same topic over and over again. Not Knapp's drinking, which appears consistently throughout the story, but her dogged hand-wringing over it, her insistence that she had no idea how she became an alcoholic. Okay, I can understand that impulse, but 230 pages is a long damn time to read about her shock and amazement while she chronicles her dysfunctional relationship with her father, picks apart her upbringing with tweezers and a magnifying glass, and continues to reiterate how strange it was that she of all people became an alcoholic.

After that, there's 50 pages of how terrible being sober is.

Now, this book has been soundly fellated by critics all over who are not me. The front cover of this version proudly trumpets, "'Drinking not only describes a triumph; it is one.' --Newsweek" Well, far be it from me to disagree with such an august publication but a) they could have stopped at the main clause there and b) that's some suspect punctuation.

I like biographies. I really do. I like reading about the interesting lives people lead that I might never have known about before I picked up their story. But the key word there is interesting. As Knapp freely admits, she came from a background of privilege and comfort and went from there to a solid collegiate performance and a job in her chosen field, journalism (cue her continued amazement that this background didn't insulate her from being an alcoholic). But, inherently, those are not very interesting items. She doesn't fire-dance. She doesn't fix suspension bridges, or work in the psychiatric E.R., or bicycle through Mongolia. She writes newspaper columns, lies to her boyfriends and drinks.

And while, by the end of the book, she's gotten clean and sober, she's still disassociated from some of the causes and impacts of her alcoholism, the biggest of which is that throughout the book she cheerfully admits she drove drunk dozens of times. It's mentioned in the book as a big joke. Got so trashed one night I couldn't remember where I parked my car! Can you imagine? Me! An alcoholic! Gosh!

No, not gosh. I don't find drunk driving funny, at all, and Knapp's continued inability to take any responsibility for all the times she got behind the wheel drunk is one of the least funny things I've read all year. Contrast the pullquote above with the following sentence: "Sometimes I'd be so drunk at the end of the night I'd have to drive home with one eye shut, to avoid double vision."

So...it's terrifying for you to imperil your friend's two small children (in an incident that was seriously overemphasized) but you take no responsibility for imperiling everyone else's children, parents and loved ones over and over and over again? There's just no moment where she stops and thinks, that was terrible, what I did, all those times. But let's all just stop for a moment and think of the children. GAH. FLAIL. RAGE.

I did find it interesting that throughout the book, Knapp cites quite a few incidents where she is the victim of either sexual harassment or unwanted male attention, but she never goes beyond simply mentioning that it made her feel bad and she didn't know what to do with those feelings; beyond that, she blames herself for feeling furious and afraid, and states that she didn't know what else to do.

It's that passivity, combined with her "I have no idea how this happened to me!" attitude that really chapped my tits about the book. She does make some attempt to talk about how some of her friends had had similar experiences and makes a good point about the role alcohol plays in both unwanted sexual advances and assaults, but never really takes ownership of that idea.

I could keep going on that theme--how her passivity leads her to describe her relationship with a giant toolbox as simply "tumultuous"--but really, I feel I've wasted enough time on this book.

I will always have a huge respect for people who deal with their addictions. And I have a huge respect for people who write great books.

Knapp falls into one of these two categories.

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