An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History

Image of An Enlarged Heart: A Personal History
Release Date: 
November 4, 2013
Reviewed by: 

“. . . a decidedly New York book . . . well crafted for the most part and worth reading, despite its disappointing passages and missed opportunities.”

Defying easy genre identification, Cynthia Zarin’s personal history offers highly readable creative nonfiction in the form of 12 essays that read like a memoir.

This is Ms. Zarin’s first book of prose and her poet’s voice is occasionally evident. Describing an apartment she inhabited she writes, “It seemed preposterous to us that we should own something so valuable. It was as if a sandwich forgotten about for many years at the bottom of an old suitcase filled with sand and the broken-off arm of a starfish had turned into a tiara.”

One wishes for more of this beautiful language on occasion and less obsessing over coats and cluttered living quarters. What might have become melodic fugues too often seem merely to slip into mere redundancy, suggesting that this collection may well be comprised of pieces written for The New Yorker, with its own unique style and tone.

Indeed, one of the best essays in the collection, “Mary McCarthy’s Chest,” recalls Ms. Zarin’s early days and advancing career at the noted magazine, allowing readers to be the proverbial fly on the wall, including the wall of noted editor Wallace Shawn, who “figured in the dream life of almost every writer at the magazine.”

What devotee of the iconic publication represented by the man with the monocle (or what writer for that matter) hasn’t wondered what it was like to be part of the crème de la crème of the New York literary scene?

Ms. Zarin lets us walk the hallowed halls with her and we are there when she has a correspondence with Mary McCarthy. We lunch with her and Mr. Shawn at the Algonquin and the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room. When she comes to own Mary McCarthy’s chest, we feel almost as if a drawer of it should be available to us, too.

Another impressive essay from which the book takes its title is a moving account of Ms. Zarin’s three-year-old daughter’s health crisis. “An Enlarged Heart” gives us a mother’s agony as she watches her daughter’s nearly fatal experience. Only Lorrie Moore has written in so compelling a way about the loss of a beloved little one, and although author Zarin’s daughter happily survives, we are with this mother at her child’s hospital bedside, feeling that “if this child dies, [we too] will go mad.”

Had the rest of the essays in this collection been as strong as these two, one might feel that this strong writer was addressing the larger themes of life in a way that powerfully speaks to our own experiences in a compelling way.

Instead, the book offers a decidedly New York book about life in that dramatic and often difficult city that is well crafted for the most part and worth reading, despite its disappointing passages and missed opportunities.

In short, this is a good if not great read that touches on issues of personhood, place, parenting, professional life, and more. It may not offer as many Aha! moments as we would like, but it allows for a number of satisfying Ahs! That is enough to put it on the list of books to be read by those who enjoy memoirs, essays, and creative nonfiction about the writing life in The Big Apple.