Readers who remember Rhoda Janzen for taking some unlikely material – the Mennonite church community – and making it uproariously funny, as well as surprisingly relatable, will be thrilled to know that Janzen is back this fall for a second round.
Is she ever.
In “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?,” Janzen picks right up where she left off at the conclusion of her previous memoir, “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress,” which rocketed to the top of best-seller lists at the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post, on its way to making the shortlist for the Thurber prize for American humor.
Janzen is unique, all right. If you recall her discussions in “Little Black Dress” about her failed marriage to the stormy but brilliant Nick, the quirks of Mennonite clothing, school lunches packed by Mennonite mothers, her parents’ cute-as-pie relationship, going to college as a young Mennonite woman – well, she covers similarly broad swaths of terrain in “Fat,” with comparably hilarious results.
This time out, though, Janzen also has serious matters to discuss. (OK, not that her divorce from the moody Nick of Memoir No. 1 – the man who decided to leave her for a guy – wasn’t serious. It’s just that Janzen rendered those scenes so, ahem, memorably.) She gets right to the point, filling readers in on the two big developments in her life since “LBD” was published.
No. 1: the man she met in a supermarket and began dating (suspiciously, true, because he was overtly born-again Christian, compared to her wounded, semi-ex-Mennonite status) is someone she falls in love with, and marries. No. 2: she develops a serious, life-threatening illness. (We won’t spoil the book by going into specifics, but for the young and athletic Janzen, it’s a condition that comes out of the blue, and as a shock.)
Oh, and then No. 3: she rediscovers faith, in her new husband’s church. So there are actually three big reveals, in the end.
Janzen, who teaches English and writing at Hope College in Michigan, is the kind of writer – world-weary yet incredulous; girlfriend-esque and conversational – that draws you along through a story with ease. This book is an easy read for a fall weekend. You’ll be rooting for the author the whole way. The book would fit naturally on a shelf, say, next to your collection of beat-up Anne Lamott paperbacks. It has that same sort of accessibility to it; that same sort of acceptance. “Now that I tardily know something of Christian marriage,” Janzen writes at one point, ruefully, “I would like to offer a wholehearted apology to Mary and Ed, Roger and LaWanda, Ted and Rosalie, Henry and Mary, Peter and Nancy, and so many others. Marriage is a different game when you partner with someone who believes in a power higher than self. I get that now.”
The characters from Janzen’s first effort at memoir reappear here, from her cool siblings to her delightful, nutty mother to her impressive, important father, who was once a highly placed leader of the Mennonites in the United States.
And, of course, there is the singular man – Mitch, Janzen calls him in her books – she loves and marries.
It’s terrific to see all these memorable characters, a bit farther down the road.
And it’s great that Janzen, for all her life has changed, can still make them as humorous as ever. And not only them: herself.
“I looked like a Lincoln log,” Janzen writes of herself, during her medical treatments. “I raised a former eyebrow.”
“Honey, you look bald on purpose,” Mitch replies.
Yes, it’s that kind of book. Thank goodness.
Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right and Solves Her Lady Problems
By Rhoda Janzen
Grand Central Publishing
245 pages, $25
Charity Vogel is a News staff reporter.