The Rules Do Not Apply

By Ariel Levy

Random House. 224 pp. $27 nolead ends

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Reviewed by John Timpane

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Why do we make the decisions we make? That is among the central questions of literature, certainly of most novels. It's central, too, to Ariel Levy's The Rules Do Not Apply, a frank, often wrenching memoir of choices and their consequences, including one of the most appalling climaxes I ever read. Levy, a writer for the New Yorker (this book arose from her 2013 essay, "Thanksgiving in Mongolia"), narrates her upbringing in Larchmont, N.Y., with parents who never quite amount to a family. She takes us with her to South Africa, Tibet, Paris, San Francisco; nighttime road trips; brave reporting assignments.

She makes sure we know: She made mistakes that led to regrets, blew up her life, destroyed its two most precious assets. The undertone: Why did I do that? Why did I think that way? Why didn't I listen, when listening would have made the difference?

She positions herself as a young, white, female New York urban technocrat. "We were raised to think we could do what we wanted," she writes. "Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they'd bestowed upon us. Other times, they were aghast to recognize their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring."

Levy is a talented writer, somewhat of a show-off, occasionally trying too hard ("I burned with the desire to rise. I hurled myself up Madison Avenue . . . muttering to myself, obsessed with becoming"), with too-heavy portents, recherché words meant to dazzle, contempo-poetic bursts. But when she tackles the main questions, as in the passage on parents above, she can achieve a fine flight. "Daring to think the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary," she concludes. "It's also a symptom of narcissism."

Levy falls in love ("With this person, I could be normal, content, blessed. Cleaned by her goodness."), gets hired at the New Yorker ("Well, nowhere to go but down," says her dad), contends with issues of self, fidelity, sexuality, biology. Toward the end, people at parties are asking her, "Are you the Ariel all the bad things happened to?" She is. "Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled," she writes. At the end, she speaks of rules that always apply.

We speak of fault, of "finding fault." There's a childish way, to pin blame as punishment. There's a better way, as a means to understanding. The Rules Do Not Apply conjures with that second way.

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