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The title says it all in Jean Hannah Edelstein's 'This Really Isn't About You'

a devil's bookshelf

4/5 Blue Devils 

You have probably been asked at some point whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, or whether you like getting to know friends in group settings or during a one-on-one conversation. No matter your go-to response, you should start reading a memoir. Books are both conversations and conversation starters, and memoir, the most communicative genre, is one of my favorites. Memoirs are the closest we can get, in reading, to an interpersonal discussion about a person’s histories and futures. With her matter- of-fact title, “This Really Isn’t About You,” Jean Hannnah Edelstein provides a sort of reality check from the outset of her own memoir. I saw this as a thoughtful proposition. It is as if Edelstein says, “Let’s begin a conversation…  and this time, you should just listen.” 

An aspiring New Yorker writer, Edelstein is 29 when she discovers that her father has Lynch syndrome: a mutation in the cancer-repair gene that increases the risk of various types of cancer (often colon cancer). This syndrome is hereditary, and especially common for those with ancestry in “founder populations,” as Edelstein describes. Furthermore, if one is diagnosed, their child has a 50% chance of inheritance. As her father tells each of his family members this shocking news, they all heed his proactive advice to get tested. Edelstein’s brother, sister and cousin all do so and have negative results, but Edelstein decides it is best to wait for her own test, with a building subconscious worry that she will learn of more devastating news. This time, it could be her own. 

For readers, the stakes of Lynch syndrome may not appear so perilous, until they are. On a Sunday evening in 2012, Edelstein, now 32 years old, discovers through a Skype call that her father has Stage IV lung cancer.. Although he had never touched a cigarette in his life, Edelstein’s father is thrust into an irreversible and life-altering whirlwind. Here, the threat of Lynch syndrome becomes tangible, and the hurdle of getting her own test only appears more insurmountable to Edelstein. 

Throughout this pain, Edelstein beautifully captures the role reversal in human evolution. In the memoir, readers witness a distinct turning point in a person’s life: when the people who have cared for them for so long become in need of their help. As Edelstein relocates to New York from Berlin to be closer to her parents, she visits her mother and father often and affirms her commitment to caring for both of them. With her sister living in Scotland and her brother in California, Edelstein is the child closest to her father’s difficulties. After living a lifestyle, albeit not often glamorous, of 14-year independence in both London and Berlin, Edelstein reckons with a new kind of maturity and strength in New York City. The next few years are a stark contrast to her childhood: Her father’s health degrades until he passes away soon after her move. And what seemed like only a possibility becomes Edelstein’s truth: She discovers that she, too, has Lynch syndrome.

Much of Edelstein’s memoir takes place in doctor’s offices and waiting rooms. Yet, these settings of heightened anxiety and uncertainty are admirably complemented by happenings outside of the medical realm. With her detailed narration of first jobs and first dates, Edelstein underscores that personal experiences, whether fantastic or flawed, are all about ebb and flow. To synthesize these disparate moments into something connective, Edelstein manages to see the whole picture — of her life and of this story. Furthermore, the central theme of the memoir is not clinical. Instead of lingering on the mutations that arise in life, Edelstein rejoices in the shared traits, quirks and memories that run in a family. On a surface level, this memoir is about reconciling with a certain kind of fate and acting on knowledge about family history to prevent any complications or concerns. More deeply, however, Edelstein’s story is about proudly embracing the moments that often go unexamined and underappreciated. 

I am always in awe of effective humor and wit in a book — an area in which this memoir excels — and I am even more impressed when this wit is applied to dark themes. Much of Edelstein’s humor is self-deprecating, and perhaps occasionally jarring, but this is exactly what makes it effective. She recounts a full spectrum of emotion in the most delicate moments of her life and locates a spark of possibility in times of vast hopelessness. In times of discomfort and sadness, our responses are often a confusing blend of emotion. With great tact and poise, Edelstein explores her personal response to pain by showing that this is life, and it is not simple. 

One notable quirk of Edelstein’s style is that she omits quotation marks in her dialogue. When an author defies the literary standards I’ve been conditioned to expect, I find that it engages me even more. Edelstein’s dialogue was never abrupt or unfit — each conversation is embedded into her story, just like her detailed descriptions of spaces and faces. In other words, the absence of quotation marks did not impede the story’s impact. Instead, it made the memoir flow without inhibition, refusing to confine itself. 

A celebration of life and the small moments that energize us, “This Really Isn’t About You” is deserving of your time this holiday season. The one-point detraction in my rating acknowledges that, at times, the pace lulls more than I would hope. However, maybe I — and you — should embrace the chance to slow down. So, cozy up by a crackling fire, sink into your couch and delve into this one-on-one conversation. Edelstein does not compartmentalize her existence into one snapshot, one vision or one understanding. Life is full of unpredictable moments. However, she makes one thing clear: What truly shapes us is how we progress and continue beyond these moments  — or even just knowing that we can. 

Bates Crawford is a Trinity junior. Her book column, “A Devil’s Bookshelf,” runs bimonthly and she rates reads on a 0-5 Blue Devil scale. Bates recommends books to her fellow students for free-time reading when (or if) they have spare time in their busy Duke lives.

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