Maggie O'Farrell’s memoir “I Am I Am, I Am” is a meditation on 17 brushes with death that the author has experienced. The memories in the book range from the author talking her way out of being killed while on a solo hike to childhood illnesses to two instances of nearly drowning. While recording these moments O'Farrell interweaves stories from her life, lessons that she has learned and events that have shaped her as a person.
The title of the novel comes from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” a book full of elegant prose and deep reflection. O'Farrell’s work lives up to its namesake. The tales of her life and death experiences are beautifully written. Readers are pulled in to each moment, some alarmingly, overpoweringly fearful, others a softer, quieter type of danger. We know, of course, that she survives. She is the one telling us these stories after all. And yet, as readers we can’t help but fear for her. That is the power of her writing.
The novel opens with a jarring experience O'Farrell had as an 18-year-old — facing a would-be murderer alone on an empty mountain path. From there the book weaves through her life, going back to childhood and onward to her adulthood. It does not follow a chronological order, but still the story is laid out in a way that flows, leading readers from one near-death to the next, from one reflection on life to the next. It is not the timeline of her life, but it is the story of it.
Through most of her experiences, one thing that sticks out is that O'Farrell is not alone. Her parents, her husband, her friends, even strangers are there as saviors or supporters. Her C-section with her son is one that sticks out. With her husband staying with their newborn, and her doctors focused on her operation, O'Farrell found comfort in a nameless man in beige scrubs. A man unknown to her, but who saw her fear, her grief, her need, and reached out his hand to her. His purpose in the operating room that day remains a mystery to her, but his impact was clear.
O'Farrell has had more close calls than most people likely have, but her response to them is an example to all. Through it all she has used those experiences as a time of reflection, and inspiration. They have not stopped her. She keeps travelling, she keeps swimming, she keeps living.
-- Rebecca Mariscal
This month I decided to listen to the book instead of reading it. I was skeptical about skipping the experience of holding a book and turning the page in anticipation of what would happen next, but the listening experience with this text was amazing. The combination of O'Farrell’s writing style and hearing the words made me feel like a friend was telling me about their experiences while I washed the dishes or did laundry.
“I Am, I Am, I Am” is not in chronological order, it jumps around in O'Farrell’s life while hinting at stories that the reader has yet to experience. When I first picked up the book (well, in this case, when I hit “play”) I was a little skeptical of the seemingly random chapter placement. But as I read it became clear that O'Farrell was introducing the reader to her life and experiences in an order that eases the reader into understanding who she is as a person and the impact of the various brushes with death. Instead of taking the time to show herself as a young child and then working through all of the changes that come with adolescence, teenage years and young adulthood, O'Farrell seamlessly moves through these times of her life with simple explanations of what she was like at various stages: the young child who was always on the move and frequently running (literally) into trouble; the lanky young adult looking for change; and the woman heartbroken after another miscarriage.
The subtitle of O'Farrell’s work is “Seventeen Brushes with Death.” This sounds ominous and made me first think that this memoir would be a slog through terrifying moments that an individual went through. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to read this book while also living through current events. What I found was a book filled with hope. O'Farrell does not paint herself as someone who has been broken by her experiences, but rather as someone who has been empowered from a life filled with trials.
The memoir’s title itself reminds the reader of the hope found through the book. The simple words “I Am” remind us that despite challenges and fears that we may have faced, we still are here. Like O'Farrell, in trying times we are able to take heart in the fact that we still are here.
-- Rachel Fergus
Rivertown Reads will be reading “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead in June. To send us your reviews or future book recommendations contact Rebecca Mariscal (email@example.com) or Rachel Fergus (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Questions to consider as you read:
Is this book timely? Why or why not?
Why do you think Elwood and Turner became such close friends? How did their friendship help them while in Nickel?
Why do you think the book jumps back and forth in time? Do you like this structure?
The novel is based on true events. How does this impact your reading of the book?
What do you think about the theme of hope? Was Elwood naive for having hope or should Turner have had more hope?
What did you think of the ending? Did you foresee the final revelation?
What is the connection between Elwood’s desire to join the civil rights movement and his time in Nickel?
What is the importance of the theme of education that runs through the novel?