Non-celebrity memoir has become particularly hot during the last decade or so, and Mary Karr's first work in the genre, The Liars' Club (1995) was one of the books that helped start that fire. Poetic, moving, and both darkly humorous and horrifying in its depiction of her seriously screwed-up Texas childhood, Karr's story was compulsively readable. She continued it into adolescence in Cherry (2000), and brings her audience up to date in her most recent volume, Lit (2009). I've read them all, and in my opinion, she saved the best for last.
As she entered adulthood, Karr was well aware of her problematic past, and tried to get as far away from it as she could while letting it continue to pull her back in. Following an erratic path to a writing life, she found herself in some unlikely situations - poet laureate of Minneapolis - before landing in a New England graduate program and meeting the Ivy-League-educated, old-money poet she would eventually marry. Struggling with her own poetry and the challenges of a marriage of seeming unequals, her long habit of finding refuge in alcohol escalates, and motherhood complicates it more. Fighting the opposing pulls of addiction and sobriety eventually lands her in a mental institution, where she finally begins to accept that she needs to give the "higher power" her recovery supporters keep talking about a fair shot.
Lit's basic arc is familiar - downward spiral, hitting bottom, finding one's way back up - but Karr's telling of the story is all her own. While a successful memoir needs a compelling story - and through all of hers, Karr certainly has one - it's her writing that has made her books stand out in the genre. It's clear from her prose that her background is in poetry, and while I'm not a poetry fan, I found myself noting and appreciating her craft. That craft is put to use in sharing a personal history that I couldn't identify with in all aspects - I've never been addicted to anything except books - but which was honest and revealing of thoughts and emotions that I could relate to. I think most mothers would recognize parts of Mary's descriptions of early motherhood; some of us have experienced marital difficulties not unlike hers and "Warren's"; and her reluctant, ambivalent approach to prayer and spirituality (even now) felt somewhat familiar to me. Karr is often hard on herself, and that was another thing I found familiar - and appealing.
Karr retells enough from her earlier memoirs that it's not strictly necessary to read them before reading Lit. I have read them, but I don't recall a lot of their details, and I have to admit I read them, at least in part, because they were "everybody's talking about them" books. More universal than the earlier parts of her story, Lit's depiction of coming into adulthood, coming through darkness, and coming into peace is truthful and ultimately triumphant. This was the first of Karr's memoirs that I truly wanted to read for the story she was telling, and I think it's the one I'll remember best (and would consider reading again).