Reviewed by Amy Fish
I have to tell you what isn’t perfect about this book first, so that I can skip to the parts that are really good. American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation by Sarah M. Wells (Resource Publications, November 2021) is a memoir about a marriage told over ten years of the writer’s life. What I couldn’t figure out is: What would make her think that this was a book that needed to be written? In other words, what exactly is the story here? What would make people come up to her in the hallway of a writing conference and say: “You’ve got to write a book about this.” What would she have pitched to her agent, her editor, her beta readers? What would the publishers have bought — or what did they think they were buying?
Onward to the good part: Sarah Wells’ writing is compelling. Her language is beautiful and lyrical. Her descriptions make it easy to picture her characters, as though they are right in front of us. For example, she meets her first boyfriend for the first time in the park while she was reading a book: “…and there he was with those blue eyes and electricity and dust.” We know exactly what she means.
Later, she describes herself leaving home for the office: “I step out of my Ford Fiesta in the mornings wearing black heels and gray dress pants, a scoop necked blouse and blow-dried hair…I am focused on the task at hand; walk to my office.” In that moment we are her, or we know her, or women like her.
Wells has an ability to be vulnerable that I think resonates with a certain type of reader. This is what I mean: She describes how tough it is to show up to sporting events for one kid while the other two siblings whine for snacks or try to leap on to the field. She talks about how she spends half the time embarrassed and insecure that she can’t keep her kids calm and quiet and the other half resentful that her husband is working out of town and can’t be there with her.
But then she finds out that two of the dads at an event have just returned home from active duty. She admits, “I look around at the room of parents. Suddenly I see them. The grandparents who are there each week I realize are with their recently divorced daughter. The mother next to me just got off the night shift. The mother in another row has a husband who drives trucks for a living, leaves at six in the evening and returns the next day…As Henry [her son] arches his back against the floor and cries, their stares now feel a little bit more like mercy and little less like judgment. Suddenly I am not so alone.” I admired her openness in sharing her insecurity about her soccer mom abilities (the chapter is called The Worst Soccer Mom), and then I admired her even more when she told us how short-sighted she was to be worried about her greasy ponytail when other families had actual problems.
This is also what I mean: If you are the type of reader who wants discourse on race relations or privilege in America or ageism, ableism, and heteronormativity, this is not the book for you. American Honey: A Field Guide to Resisting Temptation is about pulling back the curtain on a very specific slice of American culture – a white woman, married to a man, both of whom have jobs (mostly). They have three kids, the kids play sports, they seem to own their own home, and spend a lot of time playing outside. There are some close calls with infidelity and substance abuse, and some camping episodes. If you are curious about this kind of lifestyle and you wonder what it feels like to be this woman, I can think of no better example than American Honey. Wells expresses herself in an open and honest way and includes the reader in her journey so that we feel a part of her thoughts.
American Honey is a good read because of Wells’ strong voice and her connection to the reader. You may be left wondering why she decided to write this book, but you will not be sorry you read it.