Memoir Review: Bobblehead Dad

I was nervous when I first picked up Bobblehead Dad, Jim Higley’s new memoir about his battle with cancer. Ever since I became a mother, four years ago, my emotional quota has essentially been drained. Watching, hearing about, or reading anything where parents or children die or deal with death really bothers me. This rules out watching any Lifetime Movie. I was convinced that by the end of the book, I would be sobbing uncontrollably while hugging my daughters. So, just in case, I placed a box of tissues within arm’s reach.

Higley’s story is a strong one. At forty years old, he found himself bobbling through life. We all do it. The constant nodding and halfhearted replies to our children after we’ve had a long day at work or zoning out with the television because we can’t possibly use our brains another minute that day.  Welcome to parenting in the 21st century. But Higley’s bobbling came to a screeching halt when he was handed one very heavy diagnosis of cancer. He spends the next summer of his life relaxing, healing, and most importantly, reconnecting with his family, both immediate and extended.

bobblehead dad jim higley cover showing boy swimming underwater

Bobblehead Dad, by Jim Higley, was released just in time for Father's Day, on June 1, 2011, from Greenleaf Book Group Press.

The book is structured well. The narrative centers around 25 life lessons Higley would like to impart to the reader. He begins each lesson with reflections on his childhood, a time in his life where cancer was as real to him as his four brothers. Higley speaks frankly about losing his mother to cancer, and his brother, Kevin, years later. He then ties that memory into his present life and his present situation, and he does this well. The reader is left with an “awww” moment after every chapter.

But Higley’s Bobblehead Dad has a pretty big problem, in the mind of this reader. Right up front, Higley tells us that he is not going to talk about his marriage, which was dissolving at the same time the story is happening.  As a memoir enthusiast, I took issue with this. One of the most important relationships we have in our lives is the one we share with the person we love.  And even though Higley’s marriage presumably ended, it still existed, and for him to completely leave it out of the book felt awkward.It made this traumatic and heartwarming story appear to be happening in a vacuum.

If Higley felt his marriage or partnership wasn’t important to the narrative, he’s overlooking the context it could have provided. For example, did he live with his children full time? Was he their primary caretaker? Was he the only income in the house? Was his bobbleheading through life a problem in his marriage as well? These were questions burning through my mind the entire time I held the book in my hands. Then there’s the question of what happened? Did he cheat? Did she? The mystery of it all distracted me from what was really going on. With each flip of the page I thought maybe, just maybe, he’ll give me some inkling as to what is happening around him.

Higley is a decent writer, but he strikes me as more of a journalist than a memoirist. His language is clean and smart, but there’s not a lot of imagery. His story is inspirational and moving, but lacks intimacy. As a memoirist, I think you need to lay it all on the line or go home. There were moments in Bobblehead Dad, especially where he talks about his brother Kevin, where I was completely sucked into the story. But then there are moments where he tells us what to feel, instead of letting a scene play out. And it’s in those moments that I am reminded of the arm’s length at which he is keeping the reader. In those moments I wanted to scream: Let us in, Jim Higley, let us in! We won’t bite, or judge, or condemn.

Bobblehead Dad is a fun read. It’s an easy read. It’s a book that I could see being inspirational for many. But for me, personally, it fell a little short. I like a book that’s going to brick itself up in my mind and live up there for a few weeks. Bobblehead Dad just didn’t deliver that heart-wrenching punch. Needless to say, I didn’t need my box of tissues, and my daughters escaped un-hugged.

Who should read it: Dads, anyone touched by cancer, anyone looking for a quick read.

Rating: 3 out 5 stars.

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