Into the Great Unfamiliar

The real spine of this book is about Ariel Levy’s passion for writing.
Ariel Levy David Klagsbrun

“The Rules
Do Not Apply”
Ariel Levy
Random House, $27

“To this day I feel comforted and relieved of loneliness, no matter how foreign my surroundings, if I have a pad and a pen.” As much as Ariel Levy’s arresting memoir, “The Rules Do Not Apply,” is about taking bold steps — she discovers Cap T, Cap L True Love when she meets Lucy during a blackout, describing her as a woman who “had the radiant decency of a sunflower” — the real spine of this book is about Ms. Levy’s passion for writing. 

“As a journalist, I’ve spent nearly two decades putting myself in foreign surroundings as frequently as possible. There is nothing I love more than traveling to a place where I know nobody, and where everything will be a surprise, and then writing about it. It’s like having a new lover — even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.”

In the mid-’90s Ms. Levy was at New York magazine. But it wasn’t the glam job one might imagine. Her task was to “take the articles the writers faxed over and type them into the computer system — it was 1996, email was still viewed as a curious phenomenon that might blow over.” Her job was also to input the crossword, one black or white box at a time. 

Then someone told her about a nightclub in Queens for obese women. Ms. Levy was 22 when she hopped onto the subway with another lowly staff member — a photographer whose job it was to alphabetize negatives at the magazine. Ms. Levy reported. Mayita took photographs. The resulting article was given the headline that Ms. Levy dubs her best ever: “WOMEN’S LB.”

Ms. Levy, now a New Yorker staff writer, is a superb essayist. “Thanksgiving in Mongolia,” the heartbreaking centerpiece of this memoir, about the premature birth then loss of her baby, won a National Magazine Award. She edited “Best American Essays” in 2015. I remember reading her portrait of Diana Nyad, “Breaking the Waves,” in The New Yorker and thinking that I wasn’t interested in long-distance swimming, but why am I so fascinated by this narrative? 

The answer, of course, was clear: Ms. Levy is a master at finding the perfect detail. Then juxtaposing that detail with another one. She doesn’t just find the best shell on the beach. She discovers the best beach glass, the best sand-polished stones. And then she listens to the wind through the best conch. The writing is clear, straightforward. Style never gets in the way of story. 

The story she calls the “most ambitious” of her career was about Caster Semenya, a star runner in Limpopo, South Africa. Ms. Levy got on the plane without a single contact in Africa, not knowing how she would even get in touch with the subject of her story, a person who had grown up without running shoes, but then was given running scholarships to the University of Pretoria. She’d won the women’s 2009 World Championships in Berlin and was destined for the Olympics. 

Ms. Levy arrived and began trying to find ways in a rural area to suss out a story. The story was about whether she was a woman or a man. It was all about the chromosomes. “Semenya was breathtakingly butch,” Ms. Levy writes. “She had a strong jawline and a build that slid straight from her ribs to her hips; her torso was like the breastplate on a suit of armor.” When she finally meets Semenya, she realizes that “writing for me was like running for Caster Semenya: the thing I had to do.”

As Ms. Levy was about to pack up and head back to the states, she realized she needed to see African wildlife. After all, she reasoned, she hadn’t been mauled by an animal, hadn’t been assaulted in Johannesburg. “But the danger that we invite into our lives can come in the most unthreatening shape, the most pedestrian: the cellphone you press against your head, transmitting the voice of your mother, pouring radiation into your brain day after day; the little tick bite in the garden that leaves you aching and palsied for years. It can come in the form of an email from an old lover whom you have not spoken with for many years, which you receive when you are back at the lodge, sitting under a thatched roof drinking a cup of milky tea. It can come when, instead of writing to the person with whom you share a home and a history, the person you adore and have married, you write to your old lover. And you say, ‘Today I saw a family of lions licking each other in the yellow grass, and they looked like they were in love.’ ”

Indeed, a much larger danger was lurking back home inside her marriage. We will discover that Lucy’s drinking torpedoes their union. And then there is the issue of children. About wanting to get pregnant at age 37, Ms. Levy writes: “From the minute the dragon of our fertility came on the scene, we learned to chain it up and forget about it. Fertility meant nothing to us in our twenties; it was something to be secured in the dungeon and left there to molder. . . . By the time we tried to wake it, the dragon was weakened, wizened. Old.”

Of course there are rules that do apply. The Golden. The reminder of how much we need all that love. Those rules about the importance of family first. And how one chooses to define family. 

And there’s another rule that applies: leavening tragedy with humor. Ms. Levy is quite funny about her mother’s ban on Cheez Doodles. And the game she plays with her father of Mummy and Explorer in which they take turns pretending to be Tutankhamun and the explorer searching for the tomb. “At the climax of the game, the explorer stumbles on the embalmed Pharaoh and — brace yourself — the mummy opens his eyes and comes to life. The explorer has to express shock, and then says, ‘So, what’s new?’ To which the mummy replies, ‘You.’ ”

No need for a spoiler alert here because from the first pages — “Until recently, I lived in a world where lost things could always be replaced” — the last lines of this memoir are inevitable. We know there will be great sadness. Ms. Levy’s marriage to Lucy is over. She has lost the baby she so desperately wanted and knows she will never have a child. And yet . . . “As everything else has fallen apart, what has stayed intact is something I always had, the thing that made me a writer: curiosity.” 

And then Ms. Levy the writer adds one word for herself and her readers: “Hope.”

Laura Wells is a regular book reviewer for The Star. She lives in Sag Harbor.

Ariel Levy lives part time on Shelter Island.