Book review: Revolution and entitlement

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Our assumptions and expectations are often created by our surroundings. Culture, family or politics can lead us to believe our lives will continue according to a map we’ve created in our minds. It often comes as a rude awakening when reality strikes and we learn that the world is a precarious place. Two recent memoirs show this can happen in wildly different circumstances. In “The Rules Do Not Apply” (Random House), Ariel Levy relates how her world view shattered in one month when several personal disasters occurred. Julia Alekseyeva tells the story of her great-grandmother in her graphic memoir, “Soviet Daughter: A Graphic Revolution” (Microcosm Publishing), and what happened after she realized the Russian Revolution had failed to deliver on its promises.
Levy’s parents were children of the ‘60s, who “raised [her] to think we could do what we wanted – we were free to be you and me!” Women especially had the freedom to choose how they wished to live. As Levy notes in her title, the rules didn’t apply to her generation: they believed they were entitled to all they desired – limitations did not exist. By the time she wrote her memoir, Levy had learned a two-sided lesson: “daring to think that the rules do not apply is the mark of a visionary. It is also a symptom of narcissism.”
Feminism played a major role in Levy’s life. The women of her generation reached milestones – for example, marriage and children – later than their mothers. Even in her early 30s, Levy felt “young as spring” and believed she had an endless amount of time to reinvent herself. By age 38, though, she finally seemed set in her life: Levy had married her partner, Lucy, with whom she’d bought a home; was a staff writer for The New Yorker; and, after some effort, was pregnant. Deciding to take one last assignment before becoming a mother, the pregnant Levy traveled to Mongolia, where she miscarried. After her return, she discovered Lucy’s problems with alcohol were far worse than she realized. The two parted ways, which also meant selling their home because Levy couldn’t afford it on her own. These unexpected events showed Levy that she could not control the world – a difficult lesson for someone of her generation to learn.
For a memoir filled with grief and pain, “The Rules Do Not Apply” was surprisingly breezy and easy to read. Watching Levy realize the contradictions in her approach to life was interesting. She had to learn a lesson most people discover long before their 30s: you can’t have everything you desire, especially when some of those desires conflict with others. The resilience Levy shows and her new understanding of life makes what could have been an exercise in narcissism a compelling tale.
While Levy focuses on disappointments in her personal life, Alekseyeva writes about her great-grandmother Lola, who lived through pogroms, war, revolution and Stalin’s purges before moving from Russia to the United States when Alekseyeva was 4-years-old. Born into a poor Jewish family in 1910, Lola taught herself to read and type, which allowed her to become a secretary for the NKVD, an organization later known as the KGB. Lola managed to support herself and her children – with and without the aid of husbands and lovers – during periods of upheaval and rebellions.
Lola believed in the revolution and communism, at least until she learned how Stalin betrayed those ideals. After these revelations, she noted that “my faith collapsed. There was nothing sacred left. I felt an unbearable emptiness. I had been a communist as long as I remembered; I’d marched in parades, I tried to help fellow citizens. I volunteered. I was a true believer through and through. It took a great deal of courage to retain my love of the idea, my belief in what led to so many deaths by the corruption of a few people.” It was only after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and worries about how the radiation would affect her great-granddaughter that the family emigrated.
Alekseyeva’s life story is interspersed between the sections about Lola, whom the author felt closer to than her mother and grandmother. Alekseyeva and Lola both worked for social justice and both ignored societal rules about what women can and should do. Alekseyeva’s black and white drawings compliment the tale, although the handwritten text was sometimes hard to read. However, the story of Lola’s life was fascinating and serves as a reminder of the difficulties women faced in their struggle to live an independent life.