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by Rachel Simon
Plume, 2002
Review by Erika Nanes, Ph.D., M.F.A. on Feb 25th 2004

Riding the Bus With My Sister

The memoir is one of the most prevalent, and lucrative, forms in contemporary American publishing. And as with many genres that are successful, it can sometimes be difficult to separate the good work from the sensational, the sloppy, and the merely self-indulgent. To avoid these pitfalls, careful memoirists will avoid the genre's worst fault--the tendency to oversimplify the relationship between the writer and his or her experience. Instead, they call that relationship into question, either by undercutting their narrative authority in various ways and/or by emphasizing the lack of coherence in the story they have chosen to tell.

Rachel Simon's Riding the Bus with My Sister employs the first of these tactics to skirt the pitfalls attendant upon both the genre of memoir and her particular subject. Simon, a novelist and nonfiction writer who teaches writing at Bryn Mawr, writes about her complex relationship with her sister, Beth, a mildly retarded woman who lives in her own apartment, has a long-term boyfriend, and spends her days riding the buses in her small Pennsylvania city. The book focuses on one year during which Simon frequently accompanied Beth on day-long bus rides and, as a result, became more involved in her sister's daily life. Prior to Simon's decision to squeeze these bus-riding adventures into her busy schedule, the two sisters had grown apart, with little to say to one another on their increasingly rare face-to-face encounters. The book traces the evolution of their relationship over the year, without glossing over the difficulties they face as they attempt to reconnect with one another.

Disability can elicit sentimentality of the most pernicious variety--Forrest Gump being just one example--but Simon's willingness to confront the strain in her relationship with Beth shows that she is both intelligent and skillful enough to avoid such excesses. She candidly admits that she sometimes found Beth annoying and self-centered, even as she depicts her burgeoning admiration for her sister's stubborn independence and devotion to the community of drivers and fellow riders that she has created on the buses. Nor is Simon afraid to address potentially explosive issues, even when they portray her in an unflattering light. In one chapter, she movingly details her family's decision, years earlier, to convince Beth to get a tubal ligation, along with the mixture of guilt and relief that she felt as she accompanied Beth to the operation. This story comes up in the context of Beth's relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Jesse, a relationship that, as Simon learns, is no different from any other romantic connection between two fiercely independent yet loving adults.

In this respect, Riding the Bus with My Sister employs a convention common to the memoir: it depicts the education of its subject. We see Simon gradually learning more about not only the daily details of Beth's life--her self-imposed 5 a.m. wakeup time, her familiarity with the bus drivers' likes and dislikes, her diet of packaged junk food--but also about the governmental agencies responsible for helping Beth to make decisions about her livelihood and living situation. As the book progresses, Simon, realizing how little she knows about her sister's disability, begins to seek out more information. She delves into the definition of mental retardation, the various forms that retardation takes, and the history of the movement advocating that those with disabilities be given as much control as possible over their own lives (a philosophy commonly referred to as self-determination).

The tendency toward memoir-as-moral-apothegm has its dangers, particularly when the memoir in question deals with disability. Riding the Bus with My Sister does not entirely avoid the common cultural tendency to interpret the lives of the disabled as offering lessons for non-disabled people to follow. Simon's book is at its most predictable, and least interesting, when she falls into this pattern, in which riding the bus with Beth, and watching her sister's interactions with bus drivers and other riders, motivated her not only to mend her workaholic ways, but also to reconnect with an old flame and eventually overcome her fear of romantic commitment. Simon's descriptions of the bus drivers also embody this weakness: most of the drivers come across as working-class saints whose behind-the-wheel homilies remind the middle-class Simon of The Important Things in Life. The occasional references to drivers who treat Beth badly, or simply have little to say to her and Simon, come as something of a relief in the context of such relentless deification.

In the end, what saves Simon's book from its lapses into sentimentality is her fidelity to the stubborn realities of Beth's behavior. Her insistence on wearing shorts even in winter; her embrace of wildly clashing colors; her designation of herself as “cool Beth”--these and other elements of Beth's character make it impossible for her to remain confined within any narrative or cultural conventions. In the end, Beth steals the show from her sister--and, in so doing, reminds readers that even seemingly predictable memoirs can undercut the limitations of genre.

 

2004 Erika Nanes

 

Erika Nanes holds both a Ph.D. in English and American literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing. She is currently a lecturer in the Writing Programs of the University of California, Los Angeles.