Review by Don Clark
Land of Enchantment (Plume, Aug. 2016) chronicles Stein’s straight-jacket love affair with Jason. She spares none of the nitty-gritty aspects of the abusive relationship and shows us her desperation. In fact, much of Stein’s memoir seems to focus on unpacking these issues even when she can’t seem to find the reasons behind her choices: “I wanted to be protected from Jason while also staying with him.” Never quite the victim and never quite the victor, Stein seems to be idly waiting for the hammer to come down and decide her fate. The hammer? That’s marriage or death for the author, and we don’t want her to die or marry the bastard, so…
That’s not all this story is about, though. At its heart the memoir is a travelogue of sorts. Leigh and Jason pick up from the Chicago suburbs and move across the country to Albuquerque, New Mexico, or the “Land of Enchantment.” This is where the real heart of her story takes place. Now that they’re living together, we get to see the true character of Jason in bits and pieces of Stein’s memory. Standouts include his constant drinking and drugging, refusing to teach Stein how to drive a stick (it was their only vehicle), losing every job he had due to his insane ego, and his violent sexual tendencies.
When Leigh can’t take it anymore, she hops a flight back to Chicago to start afresh at her parents’ house…and then she goes back to New Mexico…then back to Chicago… and finally ends up in New York City. At least that’s how I think it all plays out. The narrative is not told chronologically, and at times it can be confusing to follow where the author is at any given time. Maybe that’s the point, though; she never really knew where she was or how she got there. The rut she keeps finding herself in becomes our rut, too. Kudos to her for making it real to the readers.
There are also many introspective reflections dispersed throughout the narrative about other parts of her life. The best, I believe, is the strong sense of connection she feels to Georgia O’Keeffe’s art and life. O’Keeffe is a kind of rock star in Stein’s eyes. She loves the way O’Keeffe carried herself and did what she wanted to do. Here was a woman who didn’t take bullshit from anyone. Stein wanted to be that way, needed to be that way. Thankfully she found solace and strength from O’Keeffe out there in the New Mexico wastelands because it provided a final impetus to get her life together.
Land of Enchantment is an honest, thorough, and probing memoir about an abusive relationship. How bad does it get? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. My one gripe, however, is that Stein can be too nice when writing about Jason. Nail the bastard, I say. But, Stein seems like a kind woman who has no need for vengeance. Perhaps, then, the real take-home message here is one of forgiveness and compassion, especially when dealing with those whom have harmed us.