Confessions of an Underwhelmed Reader
Nicole Hardy's Memoir on Mormonism Disappoints
Since the debut of Nicole Hardy's 2011 New York Times Modern Love essay, "Single, Female, Mormon, Alone," in which she came out as a progressive 35-year-old virgin struggling to live within the strict gendered rules of the Mormon Church, Hardy's career has been on meteoric rise. Overnight, she gave voice to thousands of other women fighting to reconcile the dictates of their religions—no sex before marriage, plenty of kids, and a future as a subservient housewife—with a desire for autonomy, careers, even a kid-free existence.
Here in Hardy's hometown, her triumphs have felt especially personal. Every local writer sighed in envy over the success of her Modern Love column. They screamed in envy over her subsequent six-figure book deal. And yet it couldn't have happened to a more worthy writer. Anyone familiar with her work can tell you that Hardy is an accomplished poet and a hilarious, captivating reader. She is also a very nice person.
So I will say this as nicely as possible: Confessions of a Latter-day Virgin, Hardy's memoir about slowly rejecting the prescriptive tenets of her church—marriage, motherhood, and a happy career as a housewife—is a disappointment. It's not a singular flaw that drags the book down, but a collision of several: a seeming lack of direction on Hardy's part, poor editing, and, in some passages, plain bad writing, all of which contribute to the sense that Confessions is a compelling story drowning in words.
"I'm afraid of exposing myself," Hardy confides to a friend in Confessions. "Of shaming my family, of betraying the church." This fear pervades the book, along with a sense that Hardy is pulling punches. Even as she proudly talks about her evolution from a 12-year-old devout Mormon to a 40-year-old independent woman, Hardy shows an unwillingness to directly address the church that failed her.
For example, it's unclear if Hardy ever informs her bishop or church elders that she's leaving the church. We don't get that scene. But after Hardy tells her parents she will no longer be joining them for church, a former bishop writes her a two-page e-mail intrusively speculating on her love life and assuring her that she should feel the shame and guilt of a sinner. Hardy's response is a nonresponse. She blocks his e-mail address and prints and burns a copy of the letter.
And during a visit to LA, she writes: "I've remained intentionally ignorant about the LDS church's involvement in Proposition 8—which last year overturned the previously granted right of same-sex couples to marry in California. I have turned off the television, flipped the radio station away from the news; I've hidden Facebook friends, thrown newspapers unread into the recycling bin, not wanting to acknowledge that the current prophet would... tell church members how to vote."
Later, she weeps on a bench, terrified that "one day I'll look back in search of something beautiful, some cherished remnant of my faith, and nothing will remain."
Did that reflective moment happen? What is Hardy's current relationship with her church? We're left wondering whether Hardy ever voiced her discontent to people outside of her immediate family and small group of empathetic, non-Mormon friends, whether she pushed for change for all the women following in her footsteps, who might be chafing under church edicts and staring fearfully down a path similar to Hardy's. While she includes advice from family and friends on how she can make herself more marriageable, the church's reaction to her growing autonomy is glaringly absent in the narrative—and it's much more vital to the story than some of the mundane romantic relationships Hardy instead chooses to focus on.
Speaking of romance, writing love scenes is not Hardy's forte. Descriptions of her romantic interludes are clichéd and mawkish:
On an afternoon date, there will be no darkness, no candlelight, none of the physical expectations sunset inspires. But as soon as we sit down on a bench overlooking the rocky beach, there is a palpable energy between us—as if someone has replaced our cheese and crackers with figs and honey, a dozen oysters, shark fin soup, and the powdered horn of a rhinoceros. Jomo doesn't touch me all day, except with his relentless, piercing gaze.
Ugh. Hardy is a better writer than this, and while she's clearly trying to play off these clichés—winking at them, gleefully layering them like a wedding cake—they just don't land well.
There are bright spots. Hardy's parents are lovingly portrayed, and their personalities pop ("My mother, at age thirty-two, had a fibroid tumor in her uterus the size of a canteloupe," Hardy writes. "There's a picture of it in our family photo album, which she refuses to remove"). Then there's the unique joy of watching a grown woman earn all the adult merit badges that many of us take for granted: dancing with strangers, vacationing on her own, visiting Planned Parenthood, venturing into a sex shop, relishing her first taste of whiskey. Hardy is a fun person, and it comes through in her writing.
But overall, Confessions suffers from the absence of a competent editor reining her in. We follow her to work, waitressing. We admire her shoe collection. We watch her finish a poetry degree, buy a condo, lose her virginity, write her Modern Love column, and celebrate birthday after birthday, all without a clear sense of where her story is going and when it is going to end. And when that last page does finally come, we're missing the answers to pressing questions—among them, where Hardy stands with her former church and her faith. Hardy is an accomplished poet and, I would argue, essayist. But Confessions makes clear that so far, her voice is stronger in shorter mediums.