I have been trying to think of ways to properly articulate what this book meant to me, and how completely changed I felt after reading it, but almost three months since I've finished it, and numerous rereadings of different chunks of it, and I remain stymied. I think there are few books that will shake your very foundation - and of course, what moves me may not move you - and The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan is my latest one. It's been a while since I've been so affected by something I've read (that wasn't work related, because sometimes the gravity of what I work on hits me and I feel an urge to put my head down on my desk and cry for the patient on the other end of my search because some of what I look for is awful) and I wasn't quite prepared for how deeply I felt it. I feel kind of silly for saying this book changed my life! but you know, it kind of did.
I originally bought The Opposite of Loneliness with a Christmas gift card. I was initially drawn to it because I was the very definition of loneliness - moving and adjusting to a new job in the weeks leading up to Christmas was difficult. I picked it up and read the back. It's a collection of essay and short stories, published posthumously. Marina Keegan was killed in a car accident five days after she graduated from Yale, in 2012. Her family, with the aid of friends and mentors, worked to select the best of her body of writing and bundled it into the volume I bought at Chapters on December 27th and then promptly shelved and neglected while I was reading other things. I thought it might be an emotionally difficult read, so for a while I ignored it. And then in March, I took it off the shelf and decided I was going to read it. And then I...carried it to and from work for a while to ostensibly read at lunch and of course did not. Finally, I stuffed it in my bag for our trip to my partner's grandfather's for his birthday party and resolved to read it that weekend. My partner's family is somewhat infamous for their napping habits and ability to sleep anywhere and through anything, so I anticipated some downtime between parties (and really, are you going to deny a 90 year old a nap on his birthday?). I was right. I picked up The Opposite of Loneliness and settled in for a few hours of reading between parties.
The nice thing about being a librarian is that people tolerate you reading anywhere at any time and don't question it as odd behaviour. I couldn't stop reading. I read through to supper, putting it down with one story left when my partner's young cousins demanded my attention. I managed to finish it before bed, after the revelry died down that night. And then I sat there for a few minutes, thinking all sorts of deep and complicated thoughts, but most of all, I kept coming back to how inspiring and changed I felt after it.
Keegan captured exactly how I feel, being in my early twenties and really just beginning my life. She captures the nostalgia for undergrad days and the feelings of first love and the pain of gratitude you feel the first time you understand your parents as an adult. It's a bold, hopeful collection of stories and essays, filled with the optimism and a dash of naivete of young adulthood. I get that feeling. I am that feeling right now. Likely that is why it resonated so strongly with me. I'm not sure I'd connect with it so well if I wasn't in a similar life stage.
The book leads off with the title essay, The Opposite of Loneliness, which Keegan wrote on the occasion of graduation. I'd been thinking of graduation when I finally dug into it, as I was a month out from reuniting with all of my friends from undergrad, most of whom I hadn't seen since we all hugged and cried our good-byes at 3AM following graduation. I went to a small, liberal-arts university in small-town Nova Scotia, and unlike the experiences of literally everyone else in my family and my partner's family, I did my four years there knowing that at the end, I would leave. And so would all of my friends. And we'd only ever see each other rarely after that. Whereas most of them went to bigger universities in cities where you can reasonably stay after graduation and they and most of their friends did, for a time. Graduation carried a finality for me that was much weightier when my partner finished his undergrad last year. Keegan captured that feeling of intense sadness I had, and the longing for a time and place that was there and vanished.
The rest is split into fiction, and then the remaining essays. While I liked (for the most part) the fiction, it was the essays that left a heavier mark on me. The other standout piece to me was Against the Grain, about Keegan's Celiac disease, but also her mother's efforts to ensure she had the right food. It's about food, but it's also about the lopsided relationship with parents. Keegan writes lovingly about her mother's efforts to spread awareness of Celiac disease and her efforts to make sure Keegan had equal opportunity to enjoy things, like ice cream cones and Thanksgiving pies. And she writes of her childhood embarrassment and resentment, her teenage and adult looseness with her diet, as well as her realization of the reason why her mother worked so hard and the moment she realized that in the future, she would do the same thing. As a person who grew up with a chronic condition, who resented her parents' cautions and concern, it resonated with me strongly. I had that same shift from teenage annoyance and embarrassment to being able to walk in their shoes as an adult and understand that place of love.
The Opposite of Loneliness found me at the right time. I am profoundly grateful for that.