Can a woman have it all?

Writer Ariel Levy has moved on from her heart-breaking experience and is now engaged to a doctor.
Writer Ariel Levy has moved on from her heart-breaking experience and is now engaged to a doctor.PHOTO: NYTIMES

In her memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, New Yorker writer Ariel Levy questions the idea after a bad miscarriage and divorce

NEW YORK • Just before Thanksgiving 2012, Ariel Levy, a staff writer at The New Yorker, flew to Mongolia to report on that country's mining boom. She was 38 years old and five months pregnant. On her second night there, she miscarried in her hotel room, delivering her son in a torrent of blood that nearly killed her. Her son did not survive, but Levy detailed in a heart-breaking essay a year later that won her a National Magazine Award that after she yanked the placenta from her body, crawled to the phone and called a local doctor, she took the boy's photo.

"I worried that if I didn't," she wrote, "I would never believe he had existed."

The essay, titled Thanksgiving In Mongolia, was a brutal read. Levy wrote of the feeling of her son's skin, "like a silky frog's on my mouth", and of the image of a white bathmat someone had thrown over a bloodstain next to her bed that would slowly darken as her blood seeped through it during the five days that she spent holed up in her hotel room. Back home, she wrote, she sobbed, bled and lactated in an awful storm of hormones and grief.

Before the miscarriage, she had considered herself lucky: buoyed by the gains of third-wave feminism, successful at her chosen career, legally married to a woman and carrying a baby made by a friend's donated sperm. Afterwards, as she wrote, she felt buffeted by a different kind of fate, something more Shakespearean or biblical, "the 10 or 20 minutes I was somebody's mother were black magic; there is no adventure I would have traded them for".

And yet. Not only did she lose her child, but her marriage also fell apart. This felt like a karmic smackdown and Levy wanted to interrogate her own responsibility for such a sequence of grim events. That is the intellectual backbone, anyway, of The Rules Do Not Apply: her memoir, out since March 14, that lays the groundwork for what happened in Mongolia and picks up where the essay left off, raising, once again, that hoary conceit, the one about women and "having it all".

"I felt like this very fortunate beneficiary of the women's movement," she said during a recent interview in her bright, one-bedroom walk up in Manhattan. "I got to have all these choices, and the rules" - biological, historical - "did not apply. So it was a very shocking experience to find myself, childless and alone at 38. I felt like a complete failure, on the deepest level.

"Some of it was like someone in a Jane Austen novel, getting her comeuppance, but some of it, most of it, was feeling like a mother, but where's the baby? There is no child. Then you've got a little identity crisis on your hands."

Levy bought the apartment during her marriage, when she and her former spouse, now a recovering alcoholic, separated for a time. She lives there alone, attended by two amiable, rotund cats. On a Friday afternoon, she was preparing for an appearance at the 92nd Street Y, where she would be interviewed by her friend Lena Dunham.

"This thinking that you can have every single thing you want in life is not the thinking of a feminist," she told the audience that night. "It's the thinking of a toddler."

"T-shirts!" Dunham said, "T-shirts for all! Hashtag toddler."

A thoroughly modern memoir, the elements of The Rules Do Not Apply seem plucked not from the script of Dunham's HBO series Girls, which has also been exploring reproductive issues of late, but the Amazon series Transparent.

When Levy, at 30, marries her girlfriend, her left-leaning parents are put out not because she is a lesbian but because they are against the square traditions of marriage. "Are you impressed with how cool I am about all this?" her father said when she brought home her first girlfriend.

She has a gothic affair with a brutish and unhinged transgender man who hacks her computer. When she conceives a child with the sperm of a dear friend who is rich enough to pay the child's college tuition, but wants a hands-off relationship to parenthood, you imagine a reality show.

Levy, who in person speaks in the vernacular of her era - "dude" and "girl" are her preferred terms of address - presents a memoir often festooned with self-mocking irony. It is her second book. Female Chauvinist Pigs, out in 2005, wondered just how liberated the heroines of "raunch" culture actually were.

She grew up, in Larchmont, New York, as an outlier. She was the only child of 1960s-inflected parents who did not fit in with the suburban ethos of her neighbourhood: Her father wrote copy for Planned Parenthood and other organisations; her mother worked with Down syndrome children and opened an after-school day care. And there was a family secret hiding in plain sight: Her mother was engaged in a long-term affair with a grad-school classmate who would appear periodically.

By her account, Levy was a brash, overly verbal, unpopular child who took to her diary for companionship. "That was my lifeline," she said. "People didn't like me, I was loud and aggressive. People can take it from a 42-year-old, but when you're a little kid, and people are like, 'You're loud and awful,' you think, 'I guess I am awful', so writing and figuring out how to put things into words was the way I felt better."

Not long after college, she got a job at New York magazine, where she was mentored by editor John Homans. David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, hired her away after a lunchtime courtship during which Levy suffered a bad case of flop sweat. When she tells her father about her new job, he says, "Well, nowhere to go but down."

When her marriage finally ends, Levy strikes up a correspondence with handsome South African doctor John Gasson, who had treated her in Mongolia.

The memoir ends ambiguously, with Levy pondering a flight to South Africa. But in real life, she and Dr J., as she calls him, conducted an epistolary romance through e-mail that continued to blossom.

There would be setbacks, as she tried - "400,000 times", she said - to get pregnant through IVF treatments, until "my heart was broken and I had no money and I was like: 'Girl, it's done. Let it go'".

She and Dr Gasson, a rotational doctor whose work schedule at a clinic in Nigeria is five weeks on, five weeks off and who also writes, are engaged. If either one of them can get it together to file the paperwork, she said, they will marry.

As to where they will live, she added: "We're going to be mobile. The fact that I cannot bear a child works rather well with that. Given that I have no choice in the matter, that's the upside."

And so, despite all the postmillennial complications of Levy's coming-of-age tale and her sexual fluidity, in the end she gets the guy. Who says modernity killed the marriage plot?


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Can a woman have it all?'. Print Edition | Subscribe