Reviewed by Layla Khoury-Hanold
In Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature (Little A, July 2022), Zibby Owens chronicles her life from shy bookworm to podcast host, media company founder, and author. Owens, who hosts the award-winning podcast Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books, reflects on the major events that shaped her life and the books and authors that saved and supported her along the way. Maybe it was kismet that she would find her own purpose in sharing her love of books and supporting authors. But this being a memoir, Bookends is about much more than the books—it’s a heartfelt, personal account of one woman’s journey through loss and how she surmounted the compounding grief she experienced to finally open herself up to finding love and discovering her life purpose.
The writing’s energetic pace offers a glimpse into what we imagine Owens’ life pace to be: bubbly, hectic, exuberant, never a dull moment. It’s hard to imagine her as a painfully shy, introverted child, were it not for the tenderly rendered opening scenes in which she’s reading Charlotte’s Web. Even though Bookends zips along and the story is engaging, sometimes it felt more like reading autobiography than memoir. As a reader, I wanted to understand on a deeper level what Owens learned beyond a “life is too short” takeaway. Rather than simply listing the books that got her through the tough times, I wanted to feel her connection to those books and authors more immediately and viscerally.
One of the pleasures of memoir is getting to experience something we might not otherwise. Owens lets us sample a slice of elite New York and what it’s like to be exceptionally wealthy. For readers who did not grow up this way, it feels voyeuristic and a little bit delicious, but it has the potential to lead some readers to feel detached. It is easy to sit back and judge, to think, ‘how can she have all that money and household help and still not be happy?’, even if intellectually we know that money does not buy happiness. I wanted to see more of the emotional, interior struggles of being a mother, of what it was like to try to give each child equal attention, to constantly be assessing oneself to see if you “measured up,” to feel like you are always wanting more. Including more below-the-surface examples would serve to emphasize the fact that no matter how many resources you have, you can’t outsource the emotional labor and mental load of being a parent, which could foster a deeper connection to readers.
The book most succeeds when Owens brings her insecurities to the page, whether it’s about the paradoxical nature of motherhood, searching for one’s purpose, or reconciling her own unflinching ambition in both her personal and professional life. When Owens writes with this blend of vulnerability and approachability, the reader feels as if a close friend is sharing her story with you. But again, I found myself wishing that Owens would go deeper—a writing group partner once told me that readers are greedy, and I felt this way with Owens’ book. I wanted to know more about the push-pull of being a mother, to capture the internal emotional roller coaster of wanting to immerse yourself in it fully but also acknowledging that one doesn’t have the capacity to balance mothering four children and navigating grief, whether inflicted by a loved one’s death or divorce. It does feel greedy to want that, especially since Owens already displays tremendous vulnerability to pen a memoir about love and loss. But, as a reader, I felt myself wanting to be let in just a bit more, even as I appreciate her wanting to protect her family’s privacy, which Owens indicates in her author’s note.
Ultimately, Owens’ story underscores one of the great universal truths: grief spares no one. Money cannot buy you immunity to grief, nor can privilege shield you from it. Wealth cannot repair the devastation that losing a loved one wreaks on your life, your soul. By the end of the book, we understand that the author is someone who has experienced tremendous loss in a short period of time and was able to persevere by feeling it fully and finding refuge in the pages of her favorite books. By leaning into one of the things she loves most—books, and in turn, authors—Owens has carved out a niche that magnifies her purpose to connect people with the power of storytelling. Bookends is proof that anyone has the power to rewrite their narrative, if only they are open to fully experiencing all that life puts in their path.
Bookends: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Literature is for seekers of inspiring memoirs, fans of Owens’ podcast, voracious readers of all stripes, and moms who don’t have time to read. Bookends would make an ideal book club pick.