I took a few minutes looking up Abigail Thomas’ other books and her website while trying to collect my thoughts on Safekeeping. I needed to know if she used the same style of writing across all her nonfiction work, or if the short, and sometimes overly simple sentences were deliberate. I read the descriptions of Thomas’ other memoirs, A Three Dog Life and What Comes Next and How to Like It, and maybe a dozen non-professional reviews. I was dancing around the fact that while Thomas had written about a several moving experiences, I felt like I was missing out on what critics and other readers were experiencing. I’m going to try and not dwell on that, and instead focus on what makes Safekeeping an effective piece of writing.
Safekeeping is divided into three sections, “Before,” “Mortality,” and “Here and Now.” I expected a biography, though told through the medium of flash nonfiction. The book is that, but the thread that I see tying it all together is not Thomas or her children, but her second ex-husband. His death is the event where everything previous is “Before,” and punctuates the middle section “Mortality.” I think I could spend days discussing why this is significant, but that’s not the point of this exercise.
What is significant in terms of craft is how Thomas switches point of view throughout the book. The first chapter, also title “Before,” is Thomas speaking in first person to her dead ex-husband about her life before she met him. This POV continues, but sometimes Thomas alternates, watching from outside herself in omniscient third person. The change creates distance between Thomas as the narrator and herself the character, giving her freedom to describe events she wasn’t present for, like her husband’s reaction to her threat of having an affair in “She imagines His Side.” The self awareness at the end of this piece is delicious when Thomas writes: “But don’t forget, this is how she imagines it. Perhaps she has unwittingly loaded the dice in her favor” (73).
Another interesting device Thomas uses in addition to alternating POV is inserting pieces that consist of conversation between Thomas and her sister. In “Spelling It Out,” the sister makes Thomas describe each of her three husbands. “Somebody’s going to get confused. Maybe even annoyed” (13). Later the sister shames Thomas for taking money from her boyfriend instead of an apology. In “Where Are the Kids?” Thomas must explain to the sister why her children don’t play more of a role in the book. “Their lives are their own,” she tells her sister and the reader(123). “A Present,” late in “Here and Now,” is Thomas’s answer to the sister late in “Here and Now” about the purpose of this collection of stories. If not for the brief descriptions of Thomas’ early life, I would doubt that her sister exists, as she functions as a self-insert for the reader1. It’s an interesting device because it provides opportunity for Thomas to answer tough questions without bogging down “the story.”
- I had a difficult time writing about this book. I had a lot of thoughts, some of them were not nice.
- The conclusion I came to about Thomas’ writing style in Safekeeping was that it was deliberate. It seems like the people that had less than stellar reviews for this book read it after A Three Dog Life, which is apparently more traditional and linear.