Is it a novel? Is it an autobiography? No, it‘s an ‘anti-memoir’! Instead of trawling chronologically through her life, from childhood in Egypt to parenthood in provincial England to authorhood in London, Lively has taken a looser, more playful approach, writing about what didn’t happen to her, rather than about what did.
I’m sure we all have moments in which we consider what might have happened if we hadn’t grown up in Gore, or broken up with so-and-so last year, or failed first year Law: if instead we’d spent childhood being home-schooled in Moldova, married our university sweetheart, and been accepted to the bar. Lively has taken considerations like this and elaborated on them, exploring the possibilities of whom she once could have been. If Lively’s mother had taken her to Capetown rather than Palestine when she was four, she would have died tragically young in a shipwreck. If Lively had become pregnant after a one night stand with a 30 year old man, she could have been a solo-mother at 18, instead of a History student at Oxford.
And so the speculation goes on – each chapter presenting a different account of what could have happened. Italicised interludes of truth enlighten the reader as to how much of each account is autobiographical. These passages also explain Lively’s interest in time, self and happenstance. “How they do cluster within a particular time frame, these portentous moments,” Lively writes of youth, often returning to the notion that young people are so busy dealing with various forks in the road that they seldom consider themselves getting old and dying. This sort of judgement of her younger selves is not critical, Lively is simply making an observation about how ignorant she once was of the precariousness of her identity – of how one’s position in life can alter or be entirely eliminated by everyday situations like a plane crash, a shopping trip, or a meeting with someone.
It’s through meetings with strangers both fictional and real that Lively depicts her possible pasts, not through a first person narration which seems the obvious choice. Third person narration is, however, useful in many senses. Lively is able to present herself through another character’s eyes, and pursue her interest in the ways that “we are all fingered by the actions of strangers.” Whether it is deliberate or not, there is a ruthless streak to Lively’s method of characterisation – wittily cruel caricatures feature in almost every chapter, in the style of Iris Murdoch, unflinchingly sending up the snobbery, chauvinism and other bad habits of any character who deserves it. This makes for entertaining reading, and accentuates the artifice of each story; the reader is occasionally and sharply reminded that these are not real people, they are possibilities, which reflect reality.
This book has been called “highly original”, “thoughtful” and “engaging”, descriptions that I don’t disagree with. However, despite the interesting nature of the form, the skilful prose and the sense of humour that this book certainly possesses, the way in which Lively presents her ‘antimemoir’ is somewhat laborious and, at times, over-explained. Whether this is because she has underestimated the reader’s ability to follow her drift, or whether it’s because she’s trying to do more with her idea than is possible in 250 pages, there is something disappointingly transparent about the mechanics of Making it Up.