REVIEW: Places We Left Behind: a memoir in miniature by Jennifer Lang

Reviewed by Lisa Ellison

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cover of places we left behind by Jennifer LangI don’t read a lot of experimental memoirs, but something about Jennifer Lang’s Places We Left Behind: a memoir in miniature (Vine Leaves Press; September 2023) intrigued me. Perhaps it was her willingness to choose instability for the sake of commitment, or Dinty W. Moore’s blurb, which speaks to the unpredictability of love, language, and the forms our stories take. But it could have been the book’s length. At around 13,000 words, it was a small investment. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Places We Left Behind is a memoir of intersecting lives and opposing ideals. It’s a classic story of opposites attract, where the opposites are religion (observant immigrant versus secular tourist), country (America versus France), and what it means to belong to yourself and your marriage. The memoir opens during the First Intifada, the Palestinian protests and uprisings against Israel, and chronicles Lang and her husband Philippe’s almost two-decade struggle to find a place to call their own. It uses a combination of prose, poetry, and wordplay to confront the common questions couples from different backgrounds face, like where to live, how to raise kids, whose values take precedence, and what to do when your views aren’t the ones the kids adopt. For most of the memoir, the emotional bombs that explode within her relationship are much like the ones that fell during her honeymoon. Stress and tension are ubiquitous, but somehow the country of their marriage remains intact, though the question of whether it will, lingers throughout the book.

I was immediately smitten by the playful nature of her early chapters, which use white space, visuals, pro/con lists, and stricken words to explore the edges of both love and storytelling. Then there’s her insatiable attraction to Philippe, a smart, single, and sexy Jew with a hot bod and guarded smile. She inserts us into the moments that made her fall in love with him so vividly that I fell in love with him too. But the realities of their conflicting viewpoints soon hit us. “As I slip a ring on Philippe’s finger, I think about how he blinks his eyes like an impish little boy, how he looks like he does a dozen push-ups every day, how he makes jokes with a straight face. How we are going to spend our lives together. How are we going to spend our lives together?” By the time they’re forced to use the “his and hers gas masks” gifted to them by the Israeli government, I wonder this too.

Constant uncertainty forces Lang to contend with the tension both within her relationship and the two worlds she inhabits—the fantasy she’d hoped for and the reality when two people are so different. Within this framework, she digs deeply into the roots of her own identity and grapples with her people-pleasing nature, her struggle to use her voice, and the need to reconcile her divided self, “the one who craves newness, and the [one] that needs structure and control.”

As I read Lang’s memoir, I was reminded of what French philosopher Jacques Derrida said about language: “all words must derive their meaning by searching for other words to provide a definition.” In a class I took on Derrida while earning my bachelor’s degree, we’d talked about how meaning exists, not in each word’s individual definition, but in the spaces between words and within their relationships to the page. Lang masterfully demonstrates this through her individual chapters and across the leaps that take place within her book.

Her first chapter uses a series of slides to introduce her memoir’s timeline, but instead of beginning the next chapter with her first slide “Spend Junior Year in Paris,” Lang drops us into Philippe’s bed, where they snuggle in a post-sex embrace as she marvels at how much he already knows about her. This decision demonstrates the speed with which this relationship evolves. Then there’s this example from the chapter titled “It:”

“But we don’t talk about it. It = staying in the Bay area, where I know shortcuts and backroads, 5,731 miles from France, where he knows shortcuts and backroads, 7,416 miles from Israel, where neither of us know the shortcuts and backroads.

The chapter “Calculations” is a math problem whose solution is a symbol. “Coordinates” only makes sense if you identify them.

These meaning-making exercises immerse you in her story, then ask you to puzzle through it and draw your own conclusions. But her memoir isn’t just a series of clever word games or fancy font work. Places We Left Behind is a carefully curated narrative of micro moments infused with poetic phrases—“the sky was pigeon-poop grey,” “an air conditioning unit that blows air like a whale”—that both set tones and delight us. Within them, she also delivers lines that push the boundaries around what a sentence can do. In “Back in White Plains,” her creative use of a text box to contain the ire that begins to thaw between husband and wife, amplifies the final line “hope blooms” while protecting it from their strife. Then there’s this sentence from “Between Seams:”

“At the

top of the stairs, before the security checkpoint facing the Temple Mount, above the

Wailing          Wall,

we                   stop.”

As we follow Lang through a world of seemingly irreconcilable differences, we confront the great ironies of life, such as the unlikely places where belonging and happiness are found and how the things we fear are often inescapable. If I had one wish for this book, it would be slightly more about how her final decision plays out. But all stories must end, and this one wraps up on a satisfying note that pays homage to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In that book, it’s the journey that makes you appreciate the treasure you’ve always owned. Lang’s skill and artistry didn’t just make Places We Left Behind worth the effort; her playful and exacting approach gave me a new appreciation for what stories can accomplish when we break free of traditional forms.

Meet the Contributor

Lisa Cooper EllisonLisa Ellison is a writer, speaker, and writing coach with an Ed.S in clinical mental health counseling and a background in mindfulness. A regular contributor to the Jane Friedman blog, her essays have appeared in Huffpost, Hippocampus Magazine, and Kenyon Review Online, among others. She’s working on a memoir about how a promise made during a heavy metal tour that visited post-Bosnian War Yugoslavia saved her from dying by suicide just like her brother.

  3 comments for “REVIEW: Places We Left Behind: a memoir in miniature by Jennifer Lang

  1. One of my favorite books in both its adventurous form and its content. I read it in one sitting and would do so again and again. This beautiful review really captured its essence.

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