YOU’RE LEAVING WHEN? Adventures in Downward Mobility. By Annabelle Gurwitch. Counterpoint. 224 pages. $22.99.
“The night my will to live crumbled, it was only a week into lockdown.”
Annabelle Gurwitch loves cracking wise, even (or especially) during a pandemic.
Those familiar only with her stint (1996-2002) as co-host of the amiable TBS cable show “Dinner and a Movie” were given a narrow window into the talents of this Thurber Award nominee.
The veteran actress and humorist, a former NPR regular, is the author of four anecdote-rich books. Her essays and satire also have appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and Los Angeles Times, among other publications.
In “You’re Leaving When?” she reflects on a rude awakening at midlife, occasioned by sending her nonbinary child off to college.
“From what I’d read, after our tearful college dorm room goodbyes, my future would be filled with hot air balloon tours and Zumba classes,” writes Gurwitch, who lives (not always cheerfully) in Los Angeles. “Motherhood? My work was done. Kid successfully launched, with all that me-time, I could improve the quality of my life, enjoy my blissfully quiet and tidy home. Maybe I’d learn to make soup from scratch; my husband and I would rekindle our waning desire for each other.”
Not quite. Enter divorce, the deaths of her parents, her child going into rehab, her home resting atop a fault line, financially necessitated home-sharing, failing to qualify for union health insurance, re-entering the dating pool and, for all her literary and performance success, an intimate acquaintance with the perils of the gig economy.
There is no upside to downward financial mobility, she says, but there is considerable value in counting one’s blessings during a time of COVID-19 and in reassessing priorities, which she proceeds to do, with alternately rueful and amusing conclusions.
The exchange of energy between audience and performer in live theater is her happy place, “and a welcome break from the solitary life of a writer,” but Gurwitch, who is deceptively literate, writes well. She trains a skeptical eye on her era’s foibles in the manner of a Dorothy Parker, leavens it with the housefrau elan of an Erma Bombeck, and spices it with her own witty, irrepressible personality.
She can be as deadly tackling the siren song of consumer culture, the pervasiveness of wellness fads and the travails that beset middle-age women as she is on homelessness, social inequities, economic vulnerability, and the inevitable sacrifices of a life in the arts. Yet all with a breezy touch, delivering the occasional razor-sharp bon mot: “Suede boots are also a mystifying choice in a rainy climate and for city life in general, where grime clings as unforgivingly as a bad review.”
Playing film critic, she is hilariously on target when skewering wish-fulfillment movies with middle-age heroines living in too-perfect opulence with too many handsome suitors, as in “Something’s Gotta Give” and “Under the Tuscan Sun.”
“The real stars are the houses. … With toasty shingles on the outside and warm, fluffy vanilla interiors, it’s less dwelling than live-in baguette.”
There are countless other asides, but the really juicy ones can’t appear in a family newspaper, alas.
Frank and self-deprecating (to a fault), Gurwitch is more talented and accomplished than she’d have us believe. But she has just one ambition remaining, apart from an Oscar, a Pulitzer and a working oven.
“By seventeen, I’d adopted a life philosophy that began and ended with ‘What would Patti Smith do?’ … (Now) it remains a life goal to have my work labeled dangerous and degenerate.”
Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer based in Charleston.