Review of Leaving the Pink House by Ladette Randolph

University of Iowa Press, 2015.

by James Crews

As I was flipping through cable channels recently, I couldn’t help but notice the abundance of shows about homes and home improvement—Property Brothers, Rehab Addict, House Hunters, Love It or List It—and the list goes on. Perhaps few other countries in the world are as obsessed with where they live as we are in America. We spend no end of time and money trying to find the right place or make it right, and we love to watch others doing the same to claim their piece of the American Dream. This might explain, in part, why Ladette Randolph’s memoir, Leaving the Pink House, is so compulsively readable. The book chronicles her decision to leave behind a beloved home in the city of Lincoln, Nebraska (the “pink house” of the title) to purchase a dilapidated house in the country with her husband, Noel. The two end up closing on the country house the day after the September 11th attacks in 2001, which serves only to underscore the uncertainty into which they are leaping. The framing story of the memoir is thus an account of the renovation, and interspersed throughout are flashbacks organized by the various places the author has also lived. These pieces form the firm foundation of a memoir that moves seamlessly back and forth between past and present action until readers are fully invested in the life of this author.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-chief of the renowned literary journal, Ploughshares, is also an award-winning fiction writer and author of the novels, Haven’s Wake, and A Sandhills Ballad, as well as a short story collection, This Is Not the Tropics, so we know we are in the hands of a well-seasoned storyteller. Because of Randolph’s straightforward and self-aware writing, Leaving the Pink House never once lapses into melodrama or loses the thread of narrative that carries a reader forward. It is difficult to distill a life—even a portion of a life—into a single book, let alone stitch together the many stories at work in a memoir like this, yet Randolph’s sincerity and willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve allow the richness of this very full book to come through. Some of the most affecting moments are those when she shows us just what this experience—of picking up one’s life to begin again in a new place—has taught her and her husband, Noel. The two must often rely on the kindness of friends and family while remodeling the house in the midst of holding down full-time jobs and raising a family. When Noel talks about how grateful he is for all the help, Randolph writes that “he choked up a little,” and goes on to say, “. . . it humbled us both to have received so much.” It is not lost on this writer or her husband how lucky they are to be in this position, not only of receiving so much help from loved ones, but also of having the luxury to relocate to the country, to seek out a simpler, more comfortable life.

In several places, Leaving the Pink House becomes a kind of love story. One of the flashback pieces focuses on how Randolph met her husband at a movie theater where she was volunteering, and she shares just how much he challenged her notions of what a “typical farmer” in Nebraska might be like. Their devotion to one another comes through especially in the passages when she discusses helping him with the rehab: “When I was working with him sometimes, I stole glances at him the way I might have a boy I had a crush on in junior high school. I was a little in awe of him. I’ve always had a weakness for people absorbed in their work, people who approach problems with gravity and have mastery of skills I don’t possess.” This is humble and honest nonfiction at its best because it allows us a glimpse into the writer’s mind at work. We also know we are in the company of a keen observer who, as a fiction writer, has been watching and marveling at people for many years. In “The House on the Top of the Hill,” for instance, she describes how she and her siblings were often “giddy” while waiting for the mailman, hungry for any companionship. “It was more than just human company we craved,” she confesses. “It was the gifts he left. With the mail he often left us a pack of Blackjack or Clove gum . . . strangers were rare, and we cherished what they brought even if it was distasteful. The unknown, I had discovered, was always better than the familiar. Even then, I understood it was a curse to be limited to one life. I craved an experience of other lives, other times, other places.” This craving surely explains why Randolph became a writer in the first place, why she and her husband would risk leaving behind a beautiful house in the city to live in the country. But relocation, Randolph understands, is yet another way to reshape a life, to inhabit a new self.

Relinquishing “the familiar” is at the heart of nearly every story in Leaving the Pink House, and nearly every human story too. Randolph and her family often moved from house to house when she was growing up in rural Nebraska, and as a result, were forced to embrace constant change. And perhaps the most harrowing section of the book, “House of Pain,” retells the moment when, while in the hospital and receiving chemotherapy, Randolph knew she would have to leave her fundamentalist Christian husband who had spent the night happily running while she was in surgery, facing possible death. “Running?” Randolph asks. “Why did that seem so strange to me, strike me as odd given the circumstances?” In a flash of clarity, however, she recognizes that this sudden revelation fits within a familiar pattern. “But really, this is the story of my life,” she says, “moments of crystalline perception followed by a sluggish indecision and an eager willingness to talk myself out of my own best interest . . .” Indeed, in spite of that “moment of crystalline perception,” it takes her years to divorce her husband and initiate a bitter custody battle.

As she tells us in “Christ Temple Mission,” it also takes her an understandably long time to break with the faith that had defined and given structure to her entire life up to that point. It was not until she began attending a church in which she had few personal connections or responsibilities that she says she “saw the ritual and the rhetoric as only that.” The epiphany that comes as a result—Randolph is non-judgmental but as honest as ever—once again allows us to see this writer, mother and wife, for who she really is: ” ‘I get it,’ I thought. We’re just people needing something to get us through from one day to the next.” As she illustrates here and elsewhere, we often resist the change we know is inevitable and necessary in order to preserve some modicum of safety and comfort for ourselves and our loved ones. We might resent our “sluggish indecision,” but as Randolph implies, we can only move at our own natural pace, and some lessons simply take longer to learn. In the same piece, although she has just given up her faith, and unmoored herself as it were, Randolph writes with compassion: “And I forgave myself, and my past, and I forgave my future as I felt it shift before me.” Most readers will surely relate to a moment like this, one of those instances when we stop seeking permission from others and finally decide to grant ourselves the mercy for which we have always been searching.

You could say that buying and renovating a house, raising a family, or keeping a marriage afloat are just a few of the ways we are all “trying to make sense of a world” in which 9/11 and school shootings and marathon bombings are now not only possible, but tragically common. But Randolph’s memoir invites us to open ourselves to an empathy and understanding as wide as the Nebraska sky. Like any good book, Leaving the Pink House is about the many choices we make that determine the course of our lives. Yet what an act of mercy it would be to forgive ourselves, as Randolph does, for the past and even for the future as it stretches uncertainly before us, promising sorrows, joys, successes and failures. What an act of kindness to offer us these glimpses into a life unclouded by regret or melodrama, focused only on telling honest stories with compassion and clarity, and sharing what John Updike once called “the human news.”