Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Wednesday, January 15, 2020: Maximum Shelf: The Fixed Stars

Abrams Press: The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Abrams Press: The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Abrams Press: The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Abrams Press: The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

The Fixed Stars

by Molly Wizenberg

In another writer's hands, this could have been awkward. Molly Wizenberg's previous bestselling memoirs--A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage--are to a large extent valentines to Brandon Pettit, with whom she opened Delancey, a beloved Seattle restaurant. Wizenberg's blindsidingly beautiful new memoir, The Fixed Stars, is about how she initiated a divorce from Pettit after an incapacitating crush on a woman compelled her to rethink her marriage and sexuality. She also gives her morality some squinty-eyed accounting. "Are you allowed," she wonders, "to grieve if you've caused the death?"

To explain how she arrived at this brutal reckoning, Wizenberg begins with her youth. Born in 1978, she grew up a privileged only child in Oklahoma City; her lifetime aversion to feather ruffling ("I came out of the womb eager to please") is a big part of what will make her decision to end her marriage so shocking to Wizenberg's fans, who have come to know her rule-observant personality. She seems a little shocked herself.

Wizenberg always considered herself straight: "I liked boys," she writes in The Fixed Stars. "That was who I was." At 20, she lost her virginity to a man. A year or so later, a woman she was working with at Whole Foods seemed to be trying to woo her: "This was the same time period when I had my 'lesbian' haircut, and it was probably because of that haircut that Laura invited me to a party." A couple of weeks later, Laura asked her out on what sure seemed like a date, during which Wizenberg played her hand: she told Laura that this was the first time she had ever found herself attracted to a woman. Laura "must have said something in response.... She must have told me she couldn't, or she wouldn't. She didn't touch me. Nothing happened. I went home."

Down the heterosexual romantic path Wizenberg proceeded. She met Pettit in 2005, after they enjoyed an e-mail exchange that he had initiated: he was an admirer of her celebrated (and now dormant) food blog, Orangette. Pettit moved from New York to Seattle, where Wizenberg was based; they got married, opened Delancey in 2009, and had a baby in 2012. Wizenberg was 36 and being something of a homebody, taking care of her child, doing bookkeeping for Delancey, and foraging for time to write, when she received a jury duty summons that proved more existentially consequential than most.

Wizenberg found herself smitten with Nora, the trial's female defense attorney, of whom she takes stock from the jury box: "I knew only that she was a woman in a suit. But I think she looked like something more than that, something I didn't have: the will to stand apart, to crumple up the script." This isn't the first time the eager-to-pleaser takes pleasure in dashed expectations. As Wizenberg recalls when recounting her 15-years-earlier fizzle with Laura, "I told her what I wanted. I became someone who surprised me, someone interesting." Another time she surprises herself: Wizenberg e-mails Nora many months after the trial is over, having been unable to stop thinking about her.

The problem with being "someone interesting," as Wizenberg interprets the phrase, is that things tend to go less smoothly for such people. This is a trade-off that she is willing to make to follow her heart, but not without tearily registering the collateral damage suffered by her young daughter and by Pettit. Wizenberg is also bracingly candid about the ways that her marriage had been unfulfilling, although sex seems to have had nothing to do with it. For all the wonderful particularity of Wizenberg's story--from the Seattle-restaurant-scene backdrop to her calibrated foray into open marriage--The Fixed Stars is essentially a timeless tale: someone finds herself drifting from her spouse and decides to stray.

This is not to say that the gender of Wizenberg's crush object is beside the point, and she writes with grace, acuity and punch about her efforts to untangle her sexuality, and to untangle it further when things with Nora become untenable. She no longer sees things as simply as she did as a precocious eighth grader who, in an attempt to shore up compassion for gay people (including a cherished uncle who died of AIDS), selected homosexuality as the topic of a research paper. In it, she argued for the "born this way" theory of sexual orientation.

The adult Wizenberg understands the allure of such fixed ideas: "Astronomers know that every star is in motion, and that each moves along its own trajectory, according to its own properties. The constellations we see are temporary human creations, our effort to draw order and meaning from a mostly unknowable universe, to tell ourselves stories, to guide our way home across endless oceans." A Homemade Life and Delancey are marvelous guides, complete with recipes, for living a food-centered life; The Fixed Stars is a guide (of sorts) for a more improvised life, in which recipes are jettisoned and which, Wizenberg is finding, better suits her tastes. --Nell Beram

Abrams Press, $25, hardcover, 256p., 9781419742996, August 4, 2020

Abrams Press: The Fixed Stars by Molly Wizenberg

Molly Wizenberg: A New Version of Life

(photo: Dorothée Brand)

Molly Wizenberg is the author of two bestselling books, A Homemade Life: Stories and Recipes from My Kitchen Table and Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, and the James Beard Award-winning blog Orangette. She has written for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Saveur and Bon Appétit, and she also cohosts the podcast Spilled Milk. With chef Brandon Pettit, Wizenberg cofounded the award-winning Seattle restaurants Delancey and Essex. Abrams Press will publish her memoir The Fixed Stars on August 4, 2020.

My first thought when I read The Fixed Stars was that you are very brave for having written it--not just because you're so candid about your personal life but because you recount the end of your marriage to Brandon, whom readers of your previous books grew to love right along with you. Were you at all worried that your fans would be upset with you for leaving him?

I have to imagine that some of them will be. I mean, I'm as judgmental as anybody, and I know I'd have some thoughts about me, if I weren't me. I've struggled plenty with the judgments I've put on my own self--about the demise of my marriage, the decisions I made, what it means for our daughter, what it means for me as a writer. I could go on and on. I've been brutal to myself. Writing this book helped me to engage some with that inner monologue, to start to turn it into a dialogue, put it on the page and step back from it, actively interrogate my judgment and shame. They're not gone, but they're quieter. I don't expect that everyone will like what I've done and who I am--no, no. But I'm okay with myself now, more days than not.

I'm sure you've wondered this yourself: How do you think your life would have proceeded if you had never laid eyes on Nora?

I think my life would have proceeded for a while as it was, and maybe indefinitely. But someone or something else would have, at some point, woken me up like Nora did. That's what seeing her felt like, like waking up. I think it's a very human thing to have moments like that, when we find ourselves in a certain situation where we suddenly see ourselves, our potential, our lives from a different angle. I'm not talking specifically about sexuality; for some people, it's about religion, or profession, or... I don't know. Sometimes you visit a new place, and you just know you've got to live there, and you upend everything to realize a whole new version of your life. Nora was that certain situation for me.

Likewise, what do you think would have happened if you hadn't had the courage to tell Brandon about your crush?

I can't imagine not having told him. There were plenty of common silences in our marriage, I now see--things that we'd stopped trying to talk about because talking got us nowhere--but not telling him this felt impossible. The shift in my sexuality was shattering. Hiding it made me miserable, because I was hiding myself. Either I hid forever, or I told him. It didn't feel like a choice. Telling him was horrible, but it was a relief.

There's a remarkable and devastating scene in The Fixed Stars in which you tell Brandon that you want to try an open marriage. You write about all the reading you did on the subject, and you've obviously put a lot of thought into the topic. From what you've learned, do you think that it would be possible for an open marriage to endure and stay strong, or do you think that wanting an open marriage is necessarily a sign that for the person who initiates it, the marriage is irredeemably broken?

The only people who can say anything for sure about a relationship are the people in it, and I'm no (!) expert on open relationships. But from the meager amount I have learned, and from what I see in friends who successfully navigate open marriages, I can say that relationships work best when both (or all) partners are equally invested and committed. This goes for any relationship, right? Open or monogamous. That sense of being equally invested is, of course, a shifting thing; not everybody will feel the same way about it every single day. But at base, it seems to me that all partners should be similarly invested in the work of the relationship--in talking through everything, talking and talking and talking, and in listening.

Brandon and I went about opening our marriage under conditions, I think, that doomed it from the start. We weren't equally committed to it--not really. My desire propelled us, which wasn't necessarily a problem; the problem was that we didn't have equal stakes in the situation, and we continued as though we did. We learned a lot, and we talked more openly than maybe ever before, but we fell apart under the strain.

That said, we've both marveled at how that brief attempt at opening our marriage helped make our divorce less bitter and more collaborative. Because of all the emotional work we put into opening our relationship, our communication was more intentional, less reactive, than it would have been otherwise. I know that for sure.

If another author had written The Fixed Stars, what do you think you would have wished for her?

Oh, God, uh, how about universal acclaim and a castle with a moat? --Nell Beram

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