by Abigail Thomas
Review by Tara Caimi
Safekeeping, by Abigail Thomas is composed of the poignant moments that tell the story of a life. In a collection of brief vignettes, Thomas shares the formative memories of her life during the time that surrounds the death of her second husband. “It makes the parentheses within which I lived most of my life. Not knowing you, knowing you, and then you died” (p. 3).
Through these vignettes, the reader learns that Thomas becomes pregnant and gets married at the age of eighteen and that, at the time, she feels others know much more than she knows about being a mother and about life, in general. “My baby screamed and screamed, but the nurse explained what she was doing and what I should do next time. The nurse was not scornful of me and she didn’t condescend. I stood in the doorway with my hands clasped tight behind my back, concentrating on what I needed to know (p. 19).
Thomas later leaves her first husband but remains emotionally lost as a single mother. “A husband would provide her with a center. She had none of her own” (p. 28). Thomas dwells briefly on her life as a single mother with no direction of her own, admitting to sleeping with many men and focusing one vignette on an orgy she seemed to stumble into at a party during that time in her life. “Instead of thinking about how I had no education and no job experience and couldn’t type and had no husband and three kids and no future that I could even begin to imagine, instead of that I could focus on Jeez here I am with no underwear again. Better stand up straight” (p. 34).
Finally, she meets a man who seems to reflect the feelings she has about her own self-worth. “My second husband wanted to mold me. Those were his very words” (p. 55). This is the man she marries. This the husband around which the vignettes in Safekeeping revolve. “I was twenty-seven and he was forty-six. I had three children and he had never been married. I thought I knew what I needed to know. He thought he knew everything. He was my knight in shining armor come to save me. From what? From myself” (p. 44).
But even after the marriage to her second husband, Thomas is not at ease with herself. “Was she as happy as she was supposed to be? She kept worrying about this” (p. 50). Eventually the two prove to be too different to make the marriage work. “He wanted a woman who could set the table without once forgetting what kind of spoon he ate his cereal with. Forgetting the right spoon he interpreted as anger, and he couldn’t enjoy food served by an angry person. Pretty soon I began leaving off the forks as well” (p. 55).
The marriage dissolves, and Thomas finds herself without a home for her family. Her parents agree to pay for the older children go away to school, the youngest daughter goes with her father, and Thomas must find a way to fend for herself during this difficult time. “But things were different now. Apartments were expensive; you couldn’t live on nothing anymore. And a job? What did she know how to do besides fall in love? It was a terrible time” (p. 78).
Somehow, Thomas and her second ex-husband become friends after their divorce. “Now that nothing was expected of you, you were free to give” (p. 88). Though she eventually marries again, Thomas remains close with her second ex-husband. “He has gotten so gentle. Especially since she has remarried. He treats her like a flower” (p. 93). And it is Thomas to whom this man turns when he becomes ill. “So now as he talked about his disease, she realized that she’d forgotten everything she’d wanted so badly to remember, and the stars were swirling in all directions inside her head, and nothing was where it belonged” (p. 131).
Her second husband dies, and after his death, Thomas feels like a large chunk of her life has broken off and floated away from her. “You died, and the past separated itself form me like a continent drifting away” (p. 142). The last portion of the book focuses on her life with her third husband, being a grandmother, and, overall, the person she has turned out to be. “Once upon a time anger was the final destination, but not now. Because we are older now, and we know what we want” (p. 160).
Safekeeping is a story about emotional growth and about how different the world can seem when viewed from different vantage points. “I am only a little bit amused, looking back, this view from the person I have finally become” (p. 31). On many occasions throughout the book, Thomas compares her young self to her older self. “When I was young I gave myself away; it was all I had to offer. But not today. Today I will bake a cake.” (p. 9). She also comments on mistakes she’s made throughout her life, and all these tactics combine to create a very honest tone—a tone that is at times confessional and at times regretful. “Perhaps I wanted to be one of the kids instead of the mother. Forgive me. There are so many things I would never do again (p. 39).
In addition to this book’s open honesty, the overtone is one of deep nostalgia. “I’m remembering when the baby in my arms was my daughter, when it was all still to come. So many things did not go as I would have wished. There is so much I can’t undo” (p. 175). Looking back as a grandmother, Thomas dwells on memories of herself as a mother and as a wife using the third person point of view, which serves to thicken the atmosphere of nostalgia. “She looks out her window, uptown, at the water towers, at the squares of light in other windows. Where a man she hadn’t met back then, a man she was about to meet, a man whom she would love and hate and love again, a man with whom she would spend the next thirty years, give or take, has died” (p. 37).
Though not chronological in structure, each vignette is connected to the others in representing a formative event in Thomas’s life, and each is strategically placed to share specific moments in a sequence that sets the emotional scene for the reader. Toward the beginning of the book, for example, she references an event that occurred closer to the end of the story’s timeline. “Her old friend, formerly her second husband, is sick in bed. She has brought him lunch. Once upon a time when they were married he was always upset” (p. 12). Introducing her second husband’s illness early in the book, before Thomas has fully completed his character portrait, helps to give the reader a sense of empathy for his character, where there may not have been room for any had she chosen to take the chronological route.
Thomas reaches into the minds of her characters to expose their psyches. In one vignette, her father runs out into a school of bluefish after all the other beach goers had cleared out of the ocean. “He was interested in swarms and schools of things. He was interested in bees and termites and ants. He wanted to see what it felt like, he explained later, to be among them” (p. 96). She takes care to focus on the particular character traits that relate to the story at hand. “For him love/marriage was a fencing match; you never allowed your opponent the upper hand. You laughed, you lunged and parried, you were nimble on your feet, you aimed not to hurt but only to touch lightly some sensitive place and then back off with a smile” (p. 57).
The most interesting character in the book is, by far, Thomas herself. There is Thomas in her youth and Thomas as her older self, and the book evolves through the constant comparison, which reveals a surprising disparity between the two. As a young woman, Thomas is unsure of herself. “She was afraid that there was no herself, that somehow she had gotten into this body, but she was too small for it, tiny. She was fooling people who thought she was real, and here” (p. 64). Looking back as a grandmother, she can see what she couldn’t see when she was younger. “She was like the eye of a hurricane, high wind and water all around. She would (if she could) put her arm around the girl she’d been and try to tell her Take it easy, but the girl would not have listened. The girl had no receptors for Take it easy” (p. 41).
Still, it is obvious that Thomas, as a grandmother, is still learning about herself, a quality which lends to the book’s honesty and gives the story momentum. “She remembers Jimi from the old days, how sexy he was, how wicked, A kind of god, really. She can swoon even today with the memory. / Imagine her surprise when she looks at the poster. What she sees is not someone she would take home to bed but take home to feed” (p 25).
In a unique style, Thomas punctuates the flow of Safekeeping with confessional moments in the form of conversations between she and her sister. These conversations serve to explain the things that Thomas must feel need to be explained outside of the actual story. It seems as if these moments represent scenes or events that Thomas was urged to include by forces outside of herself. “I went around with no underpants. It was like a big advertisement. Here. This is all I have to offer. Check it out. And everyone who showed any interest I followed home. There. Are you satisfied now?” (p. 35)
Rather than detailing in narrative form the events in these particular sections, Thomas spells them out by including in the book the very conversations she has had with her sister about the book. “Well then I’ll spell it out. I got pregnant when I was eighteen. I got married. My husband was a student. We had three kids, but I left after eight years” (p. 13). The style seems to work with this particular structure.
Thomas’s language is primarily straightforward but can transform in a heartbeat to arouse the sensual and nostalgic tone that occupies much of the book. “In the fall afternoons she used to watch them empty of their light like a glass of bourbon slowly being filled to the brim” (p. 63). Her imagery is exquisitely pointed. “The big house took on the look of a half-eaten sandwich, waxed paper and mayonnaise everywhere. Wherever she stepped she stepped in something, or on something, or something rolled away under a table or bed. Her children were scattered. Some had no home anymore, not really” (p. 75).
With honesty and brevity Thomas goes straight for the heart, plucking out the formative moments of her life and presenting them as the catalysts of that life’s direction. It is amazing how much Thomas can say in so few words. A single vignette can span decades, and the reader never feels like anything was left out. Thomas chooses just the right moments to highlight, so that the reader cannot avoid the intended meaning. And rather than steer clear of commenting, she dives right in to explain how she felt as a young woman versus how she feels now. If the story were more narrative, this method may not be as effective, but in its current structure, the two points of view add to the complexity and depth of the book.
Thomas’s style is honest and straightforward but also complex due to its unique structure. There are times in life that stand out as shapshots of realization—times in which something momentous happened or changed. These are the moments Thomas captures, almost magically, in Safekeeping.