The Journal Keeper
Memoirist and essay writer Phyllis Theroux tracks six eventful years of her own life.
Phyllis Theroux is best known for a perceptive memoir, “California and Other States of Grace,” and stints as an essayist for The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour and House Beautiful. She excels at closely observed and elegantly expressed portraits of domestic life that fondly recall the tradition of E.B. White.Skip to next paragraph
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Theroux is a lovely writer, but she doesn’t publish often. In her latest book, The Journal Keeper: A Memoir, Theroux suggests that writing without a tenured job or a supportive spouse presents special obstacles. She also confesses to writer’s block. When a writing project about Theroux’s mother hit a creative impasse, a fellow writer suggested that Theroux put the project aside “and work on something a bit easier – like editing your journals.” The result is “The Journal Keeper,” which distills six years of Theroux’s journals to detail her life from 2000 to 2005.
Although the premise might sound expedient – personal journals, by their nature, tend to read like rough drafts – Theroux succeeds at arranging her entries, “like puzzle pieces in the sofa cushion,” into a sustained narrative. She is also such a polished stylist that the daily jottings on display here seem to anticipate a wider audience than the solitary diarist who first wrote them.
It also helps that the years chronicled in “The Journal Keeper” were, for Theroux, at least, particularly eventful ones. We’re introduced to a household that includes Theroux and her mother, “who came to live with me at a time in my life when we both qualified for senior citizen discounts at the movies.” As her eyesight fades and her general health deteriorates, Theroux’s aged mother comes to enjoy casual walks in the graveyard, which she cheerfully accepts as a reminder of her near future. A sprightly New Age mystic who’s equal parts curmudgeon and Kahlil Gibran, Theroux’s mother proves as memorable as the title character of Bailey White’s “Mama Makes Up Her Mind.”
After her mother makes a final trip to the cemetery, Theroux, a divorced mother with an empty nest, finds consolation in the community of Ashland, Va., a small town where she regards her neighbors “as characters who wake up every morning in an ongoing story and position themselves onstage for another sixteen hours of walking, talking and doing. Our scripts are mostly in our heads, although underlying the action is the question, ‘How will we make our mark upon the world today?’ For the most part this is an illusion. It is the world that makes its mark upon us.”