Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound, and poetic without trying. In fact, the whole book reads as if Janzen had dictated it to her best non-Menno friend, in her bathrobe, over cups of tea…Her tone reminds me of Garrison Keillor's deadpan, affectionate, slightly hyperbolic stories about urbanites and Minnesota Lutherans, and also of the many Jewish writers who've brought mournful humor to the topics of gefilte fish and their own mothers, as well as to the secular, often urban, often intellectual world they call home now. It's the narrative voice of the person who grew up in an ethnic religious community, escaped it, then looked back with clearsighted objectivity and appreciation.
Kate Christensen - New York Times Book Review
At first, the worst week of Janzen's life—she gets into a debilitating car wreck right after her husband leaves her for a guy he met on the Internet and saddles her with a mortgage she can't afford—seems to come out of nowhere, but the disaster's long buildup becomes clearer as she opens herself up. Her 15-year relationship with Nick had always been punctuated by manic outbursts and verbally abusive behavior, so recognizing her co-dependent role in their marriage becomes an important part of Janzen's recovery (even as she tweaks the 12 steps just a bit). The healing is further assisted by her decision to move back in with her Mennonite parents, prompting her to look at her childhood religion with fresh, twinkling eyes. (She provides an appendix for those unfamiliar with Mennonite culture, as well as a list of “shame-based foods” from hot potato salad to borscht.) Janzen is always ready to gently turn the humor back on herself, though, and women will immediately warm to the self-deprecating honesty with which she describes the efforts of friends and family to help her re-establish her emotional well-being.
The author takes stock of the tribulations, tragedy and hilarity that has shaped her experiences thus far, reexamining religious roots, familial influences and personal choices. Janzen (English and Creating Writing/Hope Coll.; poems: Babel's Stair, 2006) excavates her past with the might of a backhoe and the finesse of an archaeologist's brush. Lines as jolting as "Nick had been drinking and offering to kill me and then himself," about her troubled ex-husband, are tempered by poignant moments of grace during her recovery from a debilitating accident: "Because I couldn't raise my right arm, students sprang up to take notes on the board." The author's relatives feature prominently throughout the narrative, her mother's quirky sensibilities bubbling over in merry nuggets of old-fashioned, home-spun wisdom. Punctuating overarching themes of blithe humor and Mennonite values are brief glimpses of raw despair, which Janzen eloquently, albeit briefly, explores. The recurring question of whether her abusive former spouse ever loved her is found in numerous contexts-solemn, analytical, even whimsical. After hesitantly re-entering the dating world, the author faced the revelation that she is woefully codependent by creating her own 12-step program, with directives such as "Step Two: Sit Down at the Computer with Wild Medusa Hair" and "Step Ten: Branch Out from Borscht." Within the humor, Janzen offers depictions of calamity and dark truths about regrettable relationships. Unfortunately, the closing primer on Mennonite history falls flat. A buoyant, somewhat mordant ramble through triumphs, upheavals and utter normalcy.
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