THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE and other essays from a life outside the lines
SUNY Press, Albany, New York
Ms. Hen happened to read this collection of essays because it fell into her lap. Sometimes a book can find its way to her, and she’s glad this one did. THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE is a collection of essays about the author’s life: her experience choosing to be a lesbian parent when it wasn’t as common as it is now, about becoming a widow, also about teaching, being a writer, and striving to find and create art in a world that thirsts for more beauty.
Ms. Hen appreciated the honesty in this collection of essays. She felt as if she knows Leslie Lawrence well after reading the book. Ms. Hen thinks Ms. Lawrence has led a lovely life, that she hasn’t always achieved what she wanted, but she seems like a happy person, one who can survive life’s tempests and come out on the other side of the ocean with her sails still waving in the wind.
The title essay, “The Death of Fred Astaire,” is about her desire to become a mother despite the fact that she was in a lesbian relationship. The Eighties were a time when artificial insemination was first being introduced, but Ms. Lawrence decided to choose the biological father of her child, because she wanted to know his history and wanted her child to have a father figure. She started by making a list of men - some former lover, some friends - and eventually found a suitable match. Ms. Lawrence had a boy, and became the mother she always wanted to be.
In “The Third Hottest Pepper in Honduras,” Ms. Lawrence talks about her experience as a temporary teacher in an inner city school in Boston. She thought she was doing a wonderful job, until she went back to school the next year. This reminded Ms. Hen of all the times when she thought she was doing well, but ended up failing. Ms. Hen enjoyed the honesty in this essay; life can throw a person a fast ball and she can get hit on the head when she thinks she’s about to hit a home run.
The largest section of the collection, and the most fascinating, appears at the end of the book, entitled, “Wonderlust.” It contains short essays on the classes Ms. Lawrence has taken in her life: art classes, dance classes, classes on education and other subjects. She explains why she took these classes as the desire for meaning, to find beauty in the world. Ms. Hen thinks that one of the most moving essays in this section is “Plank,” about Ms. Lawrence's desire to take a sculpture class when her partner Sandy was receiving chemo for cancer. Her therapist told her, "‘When your bank account is empty, you need to refill it.’" Ms. Hen loves the idea of refilling your bank account with the quest for aesthetics. The world could be crashing around us, but we should still seek what is beautiful. And Ms. Hen thinks it's possible that is one of the reasons we’re alive.
Ms. Hen loved wading through the pages of THE DEATH OF FRED ASTAIRE. As she read, she discovered it is not the kind of book that a person can read through quickly; she would read an essay, but she would stop to think about for a short time before reading the next one. This is a book that makes a reader stop and consider that person’s own life, what does the reader think of this subject, and why is it important?
A book that makes a reader ask questions is the type Ms. Hen enjoys reading. She likes a window into someone else’s life, especially if it is one that is filled with the quest for beauty and love, the desire to produce art, and the hope that our part of the world matters.