“Do you ever talk to yourself?” Ariel Levy asks on page one of her mesmerizing new memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply.
“I do it all the time,” she continues. “We do it, I should say, because that’s how it sounds in my head. We’re going to turn right on Vicolo del Leopardo, go past the bar with the mosaic tiles, and then we know where we are. My competent self is doing the talking; my bewildered self is being addressed. We’re going to go over to the phone now and call for help with one hand and hold the baby with the other.”
Levy’s self-talk is likely a big part of how she has gotten through different life experiences including the tragedy she suffered while on assignment in Mongolia, where she miscarried in her hotel room and nearly bled to death. After her placenta erupted, she told herself, “This can’t be good.” It wasn’t.
Levy first wrote about the harrowing experience of losing her son in an award-winning New Yorker essay entitled “Thanksgiving in Mongolia.” Readers were stunned by her brave description of birthing her son, taking a picture of him with her phone, and then being saved by Mongolian EMTs and a doctor from South Africa stationed in Ulaanbaatar.
Before this story catapulted her to fame, Levy was writing essays about unconventional women for whom the rules do not appear to apply, women like South African runner Caster Semenya and Edith Windsor, the 84 year-old plaintiff who helped to legalize same-sex marriage. Levy contextualizes this story in her memoir and invites readers to understand it as a chapter in a life lived bravely in the face of rules and conventions.
Levy’s interest in people who don’t follow the beaten path in life comes from an authentic place. An only child, she grew up with her mother, her father, and a frequent houseguest she later learned was her mother’s lover. Levy herself got “gay married” in 2005, living for many years with her spouse before deciding to have a child with help from a wealthy man whose identity she has kept confidential.
The Rules do Not Apply is a meditation on 21st century women’s lives, on the rules we are and are not bound by, and the importance of listening to that inner voice that tells us where we are, what we need to do, and how to survive. Levy’s story reveals that whether we like it or not, different rules apply to all of us at different times, and the work of our lives is to discern, accept, or resist those rules.
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