Ariel Levy's 'Rules Do Not Apply': Women can't have it all

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  • The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir
  • By Ariel Levy
  • Random House. 207 pp. $27

Many readers of the New Yorker became aware of Ariel Levy with the 2013 piece "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," a shocking remembrance of her miscarriage. Levy's voice in The Rules Do Not Apply wins us over, at once commanding and vulnerable. "In the last few months," Levy begins, "I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house." She feels flattened by sorrow. And yet, she adds, "It's all so over-the-top. Am I in an Italian opera? A Greek tragedy? Or is this just a weirdly grim sitcom?" With its hot pink cover, Levy's memoir seems covertly retrogressive. On the subway with a book proclaiming, "We can't have it all," you feel like an enemy agent. Can't we? And what "we" have you been included in?

Growing up, Levy wanted to be an adventurer and a writer: "That, I thought, was the profession that went with the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses."

She was a staff writer at a prominent magazine by 28, in a transformed world where anything seemed possible. Same-sex marriage is legalized and she marries her longtime girlfriend, Lucy. Any limits seem to be just a temporary stay on her ambitions. "Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary," Levy writes. "It's also a symptom of a narcissist." At 35, she goes to South Africa, reporting on the allegedly intersex runner Caster Semenya, "the most ambitious story of my career." On that trip, Levy writes to an old lover and begins to set fire to her life.

Her memoir is all tough immediacy, every detail sharp, from the "leggy nasturtiums" in a yard to her first look at Lucy, who will become her wife: "She had the radiant decency of a sunflower." But she cheats on Lucy with an ex-girlfriend - now an ex-boyfriend - and, dizzyingly, plans to carry his eggs. Lucy begins drinking out of stress and fear. Levy gets pregnant with the help of a sperm donor. Then, she accepts that assignment in Mongolia.

"What did I believe?" Levy asks us. "That I could be gay and straight? That I could be married and unhindered? A wanderer and a mother?" There is an answer here that is affecting and true in its particulars (the story of a reporter dismantled by wanting and grief) and an answer that is false as a generalization (that women cannot have both a career and a family). The real answer lies somewhere in the rich middle ground that is ordinarily Levy's province.

Fisher is a freelance writer and Chinese-English translator. This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.