It's hard to express what's so good about Claire Dederer's Love and Trouble, a new memoir about sex, power, female friendship, and the consolations of literature. In her mid-40s, for no particular reason, Dederer experienced "a world-terror that sometimes sent [her] to bed in the middle of the day."
"[It] howled at the door, no matter how cozy I was in the house with my funny children and my husband who was always willing to chat with me, no matter the hour," she writes. "My inability to get out of bed puzzled everyone."
As she tries to make sense of her despair, her ability to get into bed—to get guys into bed, beginning as a young teenager—replays in her mind and throughout the book. On the first page, she calls her youthful self "a disastrous pirate slut of a girl." In high school, she identifies with the recklessness of F. Scott Fitzgerald's fictional character Josephine, from the short stories in Taps at Reveille: "I fell, like Josephine, often and disastrously. I didn't care how it turned out, for me or him or anyone else." She confesses, "I operated at a higher pitch, sexually and romantically, than other people. I wanted harder than other people. And yet I felt disempowered to take action. I needed someone to do it to me. This need would never go away, though I didn't know it at the time."
In college, her ability to sleep with many men makes her "feel kind of crazy with power." She "never stopped... like a shark." When her brother comes to visit her at Oberlin College, they sit on a bench that happens to have "FOR A GOOD TIME CALL CLAIRE DEDERER" scrawled on it, along with her campus phone number. She turns red, and her brother is "horrified yet unsurprised."
What emerges, in the course of this vivid, hilarious, daring self-portrait of a book, is a person who has achieved clarity about her own contradictions, or at least has figured out how to use those contradictions as an excuse to bring lively writing into the world.
Told from changing points of view, the memoir is practically a master class in narrative technique. The chapter "How to Have Sex with Your Husband of Fifteen Years" is written in second person; "Recidivist Slutty Tendencies in the Pre-AIDS-Era Adolescent Female: A Case Study" is written in pseudoscientific third person; the chapter "Dear Roman Polanski" is written in first person, in the form of a letter.
"Roman Polanski, as I grow older I think about you more and more often," she writes. "In fact, sometimes I can't stop thinking about you. Is it because I have a thirteen-year-old daughter, the same age Samantha Gailey was when you raped her? That seems kind of, I dunno, obvious. And yet that's when you appeared in my mind, like the squirrel who once moved into the crawl space above my kitchen." One contradiction is that Dederer wants to give her daughter the freedom to be as wild as she was, and yet she's terrified of granting her that freedom; when Dederer was 13 herself, a stoned adult climbed into her sleeping bag and pressed himself repeatedly against her naked thigh.
Another contradiction is that the figure of a rapist interacts complicatedly with Dederer's own desires to be dominated, to be taken by a man against her will (a recurrent fantasy that gets its own chapter, "Uchronia"). And then there's a tendril of the narrator's Polanski obsession that's more or less writerly: "Perhaps it's significant that I try so hard to view the scene from your point of view. I immediately ask: What did you see when you looked at her? Even I, with my earnest intent to imagine her experience, allow the story to be hijacked by you, Polanski."
This knot of contradictions runs like a rip current through the book ("Dear Roman Polanski, Part Deux" is the book's penultimate chapter), but despite her worries that there is something troubled about her nature, this is not a troubling book. The world is troubling, yes, but this narrator's intelligence, her curiosity about the ambivalence that defines interiority, and the unique light cast by her experiences growing up in Seattle the 1970s and '80s yield insight and laughs on every page. The adults around her back then were "finding themselves" too, many of them turning to sex, or drugs, or "trying to figure out different, original, new ways of living that involved yurts."