The Rules Do Not Apply
With a loyal wife at home and a hot lover on the side, Ariel Levy confesses: “I thought I could be like a French man with a mistress in a movie … that I could step outside of my life for a few gleaming hours from time to time and then return to it, without consequence …” She knew it wasn’t right. But she wanted, she says, “what we all want: everything”.
The irony of the title The Rules Do Not Apply is that, in the end, as Levy realises, they kind of do. This is true even if you are a successful writer for The New Yorker. It’s true even if in many ways, you don’t conform to the mainstream: Levy was married to Lucy, another woman, and her lover was an ex who had transitioned to male. Betrayal is betrayal. There are other types of rules, too: the older a woman gets, the harder it may be to have a child. The preface depicts Levy, in her late 30s, steeped in grief, contemplating her miscarriage, the breakdown of her relationship and loss of her home.
Levy’s description of her reporting trip to South Africa in search of the intersex athlete Caster Semenya, which opens the first part of the book, is fascinating. She has a journalistic facility for vivid yet economical prose and intelligent observation that she applies to her own life as well. When she describes the catastrophic miscarriage she suffered in an Ulaanbaatar hotel bathroom, the result is harrowing. She is also vigilantly self-reflective: “Daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary,” she writes. “It’s also a symptom of narcissism.”
As an admirer of Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs, a whip-sharp, feminist critique of the faux-empowerment of “raunch culture”, I hoped for more vision and less self-regard. Perhaps it is wrong to want a memoir to be more than it is. Yet although her purpose is broader, she focuses so tightly on her personal experience and middle-class expectations that she fails to speak to the concerns of women who not only have never dared to dream they could “have it all” but who struggle every day to have just some of “it”. If this book doesn’t mean much more than simply, “I thought the rules didn’t apply and then I discovered they did” – if feminism doesn’t mean much more than that – then both have failed. CG
Little, Brown, 224pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 25, 2017 as "Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply". Subscribe here.