What is a woman in her early 40s to do when her brilliant, gorgeous, manic-depressive, verbally abusive, charming control freak of a husband of 15 years leaves her for a man named Bob, just before a drunken driver gives her so many broken bones that she has to inch down stairs on her backside?
In Rhoda Janzen’s wonderfully intelligent and frank memoir, she goes home to the Mennonites.
Janzen, the author of a poetry collection called “Babel’s Stair,” teaches English and creative writing at Hope College in Michigan. Those aren’t promising details, I know — readers may suspect that an academic poet’s memoir about failed marriage, debilitating pain and a strict religious upbringing would be dry, self- pitying and overly earnest. But “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” is snort-up-your-coffee funny, breezy yet profound, and poetic without trying. In fact, the whole book reads as if Janzen had dictated it to her best non-Menno friend, in her bathrobe, over cups of tea.
Nothing much happens here, plotwise. While Janzen is healing both physically and emotionally, she returns to California to stay with her parents — a handsome, preachy father who’s “the Mennonite equivalent of the pope,” and a resolutely cheery, unapologetically flatulent mother who, as a nurse, is as open about bodily functions as her daughter is about emotions. They celebrate Christmas with Janzen’s beautiful younger sister, Hannah, weed out the closets, play Scrabble and cook. (Apparently, all Mennonite women can cook: “Dinner for 10 an hour from now? No problem.”)