“My mother and I are sitting in the small dining room of her town-house; we are sitting at the table she’s had since I was a girl, but I am nearly fifty.” Thus begins Beth Alvarado’s memoir Anthropologies: A Family Memoir. This first sentence sets the tone and style of the book—clear pictures and underlying emotions presented in brevity and concise language that reads like poetry.
The first section, “Part One. Notes on Silence,” skips around in time, from her mother old and dying in one sentence, to the same woman young and sarcastic in the next sentence. One moment we learn about her grandmother, next about her father, until the reader is almost ready to give up. Despite the beautiful images and succinct language, the reader cannot help but feel a disconnect due to the lack of continuity. Perhaps this is intentional as Alvarado expresses her own disconnect from her family throughout the rest of the book.
“Part Two. Notes on Travel.” All of a sudden everything sharpens into focus. Alvarado takes us on a journey, running away at the age of sixteen to move in with her boyfriend and his family, then marriage, drug addiction, rehabilitation, motherhood, and gang-wars, to her successful emergence as a college professor. Her story is riveting. Precise language, vivid imagery and total honesty provide the reader with a new perspective.
“Part Three. Notes on Art.” Alvarado manages to leave the reader wanting more which is an accomplishment for a book that feels distant and detached in the beginning. Anthropologies: A Family Memoir is a powerful story of a remarkable life. It’s an excellent example of effectively saying more by saying less.
Anthropologies is a beautiful book — poetic, broad in scope, complex yet accessible. For me, the fragmentary structure felt like the struggle to convey truth, which often doesn’t unravel in a smooth way, but sometimes feels more impressionistic. The segmented form felt very intimate, actually, like the writer was sharing memories and trying to puzzle them together into a meaningful whole. If you like Lia Purpura and Brenda Miller, try Alvarado’s book.