In Susanna Sonnenberg’s 2013 memoir, She Matters: A Life in Friendships, told within a series of essays, the author takes readers through the intimacies, adventures, frustrations, surprises, and disappointments that make up her friendships with women. While Sonnenberg tackles various issues in this memoir, the focus remains on her female friendships. Since it seems natural to associate certain time periods and places with certain people, Sonnenberg’s structural technique, which compartmentalizes each relationship in its own essay, is an effective one. Sonnenberg examines the arc that each character and their friendships take, thereby establishing a similar plot for each of the essays: a beginning, a middle, and an end. In writing about her friendships, she’s able to utilize craft to create powerful characterizations in how she describes character action, her general authorial comments and her use of dialogue. The memoir’s structure, plot, and characters each serve to shape and explore some of the formative female friendships that Sonnenberg has experienced, resulting in a valuable study of how to craft narrative.
Sonnenberg structures each of her essays with an experience, a lesson, and a revelation. We learn that growing up, her father was absent, and her mother was a regular drug user, and thus, emotionally unavailable to her. It might even be because of this that she attaches herself to other females so quickly and so fiercely: Sonnenberg analyzes herself as a character throughout the memoir. One of the strongest revelations comes when she says, “I hadn’t asked for what I really needed her to give me, because you can’t ask for everything; you can’t ask your friend to fill up the holes left gaping by two selfish parents” (206). Sonnenberg often admits her faults and shortcomings, and with this admission, she sheds light on the fact that her issues are too difficult for any one friend to be able to fix. As narrator, Sonnenberg develops insights about herself, including how she finds there to be more complexity in her friendships with women than with men. For instance, she writes:
I knew how to make men last, trusted their allegiance and their reliable limitations. Women didn’t last. Unable to help my hope and longing at the start, I opened myself, gave away everything, immersed in a woman as if I wished to disappear. Things blew up, or we lost focus on each other…Each friendship ended, like a fabulous limited run” (8).
Clearly, Sonnenberg is aware of her fascination with female friendships and considers this to be a worthy subject matter to explore. It wouldn’t have affected the structure of her novel to include both men and women in her work, but the decision to focus solely on women seems to be a thematic choice.
These insights into herself might have been formed from a very young age, as she explains: “Women, my young mother had shown me, are the festival” (33). This self-awareness mirrors the growth and lessons learned as a result of the relationships themselves, even if it’s the realization that they are both changed people once the friendship has run its course. For example, one of her most mature relationships is with a woman named Patricia, and when Sonnenberg tells her that she is thinking of getting an abortion, Patricia says, “Don’t do it” (11). As a result, their friendship becomes immediately altered. Sonnenberg says, “I think what happened at that table was that she hated me. She saw me squandering the precious. I saw she couldn’t help me…We made a gap then—her longing, my burden, the blankness in between” (11-12). In this particular case, she’s learned that friendships cannot survive when there are starkly opposing values; goals so separate that what seems a burden to one is a blessing to the other. Friendships also cannot survive when one person fails to play their expected role. The passage of time has allowed Sonnenberg to examine each relationship with the gift of retrospection, and as a result, she frames and articulates what she feels she has learned.
The structure of syntax, mainly tight sentences and paragraphs, aides in effectively covering a lot of ground within a short amount of space. In one sentence, she encompasses past and present to inform us about a relationship, “We move on, talk about her mother, how she’s managing, about the rearranging in a family when one person dies. We didn’t use to know. We’d been adding people, choosing people” (7). She uses this technique again when describing the initial encounter between herself and her friend, Jessica, “The first night, rowdy returning girls bullied each other, and above them on upper bunks Jessica and I made eye contact, confirmed safety” (42). This sentence immediately establishes time and place, and then describes a beautiful moment of camaraderie between girlfriends. It is simple, but does a lot without relying on too much exposition, using well-defined language to bring to life two characters and their relationship: the precise language reflecting the exact moment that the friendship began. One can’t help but notice that Sonnenberg’s particular storytelling in these instances works well because it encapsulates the short cuts that women are used to having in their friendships, whether it be at the beginning, the middle or the end.
Each essay’s plot is structured in a similar way: there is the development of a friendship, its end, and Sonnenberg’s examination of what led to its demise and how she feels about it. It is virtually impossible for every friendship in a person’s life to last the same length of time or to hold the same value. Why do some last a lifetime while others last so much less? By examining others’ relationships, we examine our own. Sonnenberg’s subject and approach provides readers with one of literature’s great benefits: our shared human experience.
She writes about how the loss of one particular friendship resembles the intense longing of losing a lover, “I willed her to worry and come over to me, but she didn’t. She’d forgotten I was there. She wasn’t aware of the affection I’d pinned on her, how I willed her to be worthy of it, and how I hoped she’d notice the care I hadn’t yet had” (53). In regards to another friendship ending, she writes, “How could I know us and she know some other us?” (139). The confusion and uncertainty of this friendship brings up a valid point: were they ever truly friends?
Examining character is a significant part of this work, both in the writer, herself, as a character, and in the friends as characters. At the end of a conversation with her friend Claire, she says, “I felt her careful withdrawal. She called me less, and she mentioned another friend…If the situation had been reversed…I would have felt abandoned, and maybe she felt that. I don’t know what she felt” (136). By writing silence in such a powerful way, Sonnenberg has accurately captured these relevant and defining moments, expertly writing characters as they silently communicate. For instance, she writes, “Her face then. I saw the change. The ashen shadow, the tense retreat” (11). Rather than skip over the silence, or mention it in passing, Sonnenberg illuminates the darkness of silence and brings it into the light to have its own story.
Sonnenberg uses dialogue sparingly, which makes the read seem dense at times. What little dialogue she does have is strong and effective as she weaves through some internal dialogue to further enhance the external dialogue. Besides this being an effective method of allowing the silences to speak, the narrative relies more on other literary devices, with a focus on internal thought and description, both of which allow the reader to be very involved in the process of discovery. When she doesn’t use quotations for dialogue, she uses italics, relying on a common, but effective, craft technique. Doing this keeps the reader in the narrative, without derailing their train of thought.
In every relationship we’re introduced to, bonding occurs quickly, sometimes seeming forced: “I was used to deeper talk mixed with trivial musings sooner—the way women talk, assuming we will inevitably be intimate, so we may as well get there…” (195-196). Sonnenberg captures this expectation that women often have of one another, and shows us that she, herself, embraces what these relationships promise to deliver, as well as what she hopes they will provide. When she’s the one who gets dumped by her friend Claire, she writes: “I felt nauseous all the time, and crazy, and doomed. How had I failed at this, at her, failed so utterly? Was I really as callous and arrogant as she said?” (138). Sonnenberg is able to bring readers into the narrative fold by applying a universal writing rule: being specific about an incident so that readers can better relate to it. The fear of rejection is a genuine human fear. How do you not feel a sense of empathy for an author who takes you on such an insightful and thoroughly honest portrayal of friendship? In reading about Sonnenberg’s friendships, we in turn, become her confidante, thereby becoming her friend by proxy as we connect with her through her crafting of experiences. This connection with the writer makes us care about the outcome of the relationships which she writes about.
It is these moments of self-reflection and analysis that make Sonnenberg a trusted narrator since she doesn’t shy away from self-analysis and of holding herself accountable. As she navigates her way through her own life, as well as within her friendships, Sonnenberg openly discusses her imperfections. Her deepest analysis is when she admits that she failed Rachel, a friend who is struggling with a new baby, when she tells her that she is a bad mother (162). In admitting that she failed this friend, she is defining what she believes friendships should be, while at the same time, not shying away from a plot arc that ends in disappointment for her. When analyzing herself and these relationships, Sonnenberg sees a connection between cause and effect.
Sonnenberg’s use of structure, plot, and characters are each utilized to best explore the impact each relationship has on her, providing valuable insights into the author’s craft along the way. Sonnenberg’s method of structuring her experiences similarly, demonstrates that form and consistency are valuable techniques in supporting a narrative, aided along the way by her use of sentence syntax and dialogue, which also impacts upon the work’s structure. The organization of plot plays an important role in how the story unfolds, and it reinforces the value of having a carefully structured plot. Her use of character is a refreshing reminder that even when writing nonfiction, crafting character is an essential element to narrative, and in this work, it is done with exemplary skill. Aside from enjoying a well-crafted and insightful memoir, for a writer there are many benefits to reading this work: to gain insight into how best to structure a memoir, how to effectively plot individual essays and weave this plot into the work’s entirety, as well as how to maximize characterization when presented with various characters, including the author as character and narrator.
Marilyn is a writer from Toronto, Canada. She is currently an MFA Candidate in creative writing at the University of Tampa, and is also a Hambidge Fellow, and a DISQUIET alumna. She can be found at marilynduartewriter.com